A View from the Mainstream: Old Age is Not for Sissies

Daniel Perry of the Alliance for Aging Research was kind enough to send over an article written in conjunction with Brian Kennedy of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. I take this as a sign that various conjunctions are imminent in the moving spheres of government funding of aging research and the broader pressures on the economy. Organizations like these two have their own cycles of publicity and outreach that ebb and flow in time with potential shifts in public funding:

Bette Davis was right - old age is not for sissies.

One hundred years ago most of us didn't have the luxury of old age. Today, life expectancy is almost 80 years. But while we've gotten very good at adding life-years, we've yet to master how to keep those years healthy and vigorous. Eighty percent of seniors have at least one major chronic condition and half have two or more. Chronic diseases of later life are costing the nation more than $1 trillion per year - a figure expected to increase to $6 trillion by the middle of this century.

Scientists who study aging are in general agreement that the process isn't set in stone - the aging process can be sped up by genetics or poor lifestyle choices, but it can also be slowed down. With sufficient funding and focus, research that slows aging has the potential to do what no drug, surgical procedure, or behavior modification can do - add healthy years of life, and simultaneously postpone the costly and harmful conditions of old age.

Age is the common denominator and number one risk factor to virtually every chronic disease we face. Scientists know that alterations in cell replacement and repair, stress response, and inflammation are the key influencers to the development of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other debilitating (and costly) conditions later in life. These are also the essential changes taking place in our aging bodies.

There are currently 10,000 Americans a day turning 65; by 2030, about one in five Americans will be past that age. To afford the eldercare costs that lay ahead our country must invest now in the prevention and postponement of age-related illness. New realities of population aging and chronic disease call for new thinking how we fund biomedical research. The great majority of federal medical research funds goes to studies of diseases of aging such as cancer, heart ailments and diabetes in isolation from each other and largely divorced from the underlying aging processes that lead to all of them. Less than one percent of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) annual budget funds research into the underlying biology of aging and its role in age-related disease.

Meanwhile privately funded research centers such as the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California and other centers in universities across the U.S. are probing new understanding of aging in order to defeat diseases from cancer to Alzheimer's. And the private non-profit Alliance for Aging Research is pressing a 'Healthspan Campaign' pointing out the large social and economic rewards to be gained by increasing the federal investment in medical research with a greater focus on the underlying biology of aging.

Already the National Institutes of Health, which is mostly organized by various disease research programs, has initiated a cross-cutting interest group involving 17 separate NIH Institutes to pursue "geroscience," a new term for understanding our aging bodies so we might experience more healthy years of life. At a time when even medical research is feeling a funding squeeze, for multiple research institutes to pool expertise and resources in order to confront the mammoth health challenge of an aging population, this is a prudent course and a sound public investment for America's future.

Recently, the Director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, testified before the Senate subcommittee that determines future appropriations. We were encouraged that the promise of more coordinated research into aging was set before important members of Congress who help determine research priorities. As we have learned from the experience with polio and HIV/AIDS, significant federal investment in biomedical research can have a profound impact on not only reducing mortality and morbidity, but on reducing healthcare costs.

The evidence is strong that the single most effective strategy in "bending the cost curve" on health care is preventing age-related chronic diseases in the first place. It will require courageous and innovative policy-making to step outside the traditional way medical research priorities have been established. Just as old age is not for sissies, neither is forward-looking public policy.


Daniel P. Perry is President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research.
Brian K. Kennedy, Ph.D. is President and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.

It's possible to agree with everything said above about aging and the need for action, and then completely disagree that a wise use of time is chasing tax dollars and playing the lobbying game - putting money into the pockets of politicians and their cronies rather than research institutions. Government funding comes with government regulation and government values: it corrodes everything it touches, destroys the incentives to create progress, blocks clinical applications of research, and turns even the most ambitious ideals into staid jobs programs for the connected that win ever more money by failing to achieve any of their goals.

My view of the ideal future for the funding of medical research is closer to that of Peter Thiel - venture philanthropy, crowdsourcing for research, radical distribution of research collaboration between regions of the world, open biotechnology and science, and big financial risks put on programs like the Strategies for Negligible Engineered Senescence that have massive payoffs on achieving success. This is a future in which the connectivity of the Internet, dirt-cheap biotechnology, crowdsourcing, cheap air travel, and medical tourism combine to make every present institution in medical research irrelevant.

So avoid like the plague the incremental, aim-for-one-little-bit-better, money-chewing philosophy of government expenditures and near-sighted goals, that's what I say. Political culture is unable to look past the present and unable to avoid corruption. If you leave progress up to politicians and the regulatory capture collective that is Big Pharma, all you'll get is waste, "progress" that is one step short of stasis, and the building of institutions that - like the FDA - are incentivized to prevent the future, not unleash it.

So in conclusion, I see folk like the authors above to be in some ways rather like the A4M business leaders, for all that their politics couldn't be any more different. By that I mean that their hearts are in the right place, they have an enthusiasm for the cause of really, actually doing something about aging, but are heading down the wrong road when it comes to achieving significant, game-changing progress in longevity science by the only metric that matters - how long we all live.



Posted by: PERCY MAYEAUX at April 16th, 2012 6:57 AM
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