Greater Advocacy for the Longevity Dividend

The Longevity Dividend is an advocacy and education initiative that aims to gather sufficient public and political support to reshape the flow of public funds into aging science: to explicitly aim to slow aging and extend healthy life, and to greatly increase government funding for that goal via the National Institutes of Health. The initiative has been around for some years, but of late the level of organization and public advocacy has stepped up a few notches. This, the continuing success of the SENS Research Foundation in gathering support and allies in the scientific community, and Google's Calico operation are, I think, all signs of the times. Past years of persistent advocacy have succeeded in waking up some portions of the community, and the results are now emerging. This is the entry into the next cycle of development, in which there is a lot more funding and interest for medical research that might potentially extend healthy human life spans.

Investments in aging biology research will pay longevity dividend, scientists say

Finding a way to slow the biological processes of aging will do more to extend the period of healthy life in humans than attacking individual diseases alone, according to some of the nation's top gerontologists writing in the latest issue of Public Policy & Aging Report (PP&AR), titled "The Longevity Dividend: Geroscience Meets Geropolitics." The authors showcase work in the emerging interdisciplinary field of geroscience, which is based on the knowledge that aging itself is the major risk factor for most chronic diseases prevalent in the older population. "In recent years, researchers studying the biological underpinnings of the aging process have made impressive progress in understanding the genetics, biology, and physiology of aging," said GSA Executive Director and CEO James Appleby, RPh, MPH. "With adequate research support, we could be in reach of a breakthrough similar to those in public health in the 19th century and medicine in the 20th."

While researcher S. Jay Olshansky's article in the PDF linked below is much more ambitious in terms of goals and possibilities than I recall being the case for his public position in the past - there is a table in there that includes the word "immortality," for example - this is still not open support for SENS and rejuvenation of the old through repair therapies. It is support for slowing aging, which implicitly means support for the present slow road in aging research, the drug development and metabolic manipulation that is unlikely to result in great gains, and which will absorb a great deal of time and money in the course of going pretty much nowhere.

Still, a starting point is a starting point. When the Longevity Dividend folk set to work in order to dispel public misconceptions relating to overpopulation and increased infirmity in longer lives - both absolutely unfounded fears - then all efforts to extend life benefit. A rising tide raises all boats, and it is in everyone's interest to inform the public that yes, life extension in fact means health extension, and population will generally grow only slowly as human life spans become much longer.

The Longevity Dividend: Geroscience Meets Geropolitics (PDF)

The case for the longevity dividend is extremely compelling and, in theory, should be easy to make to funders, public-health professionals, and the general public. Here is the line of reasoning:

  • Treating diseases worked well in the past to extend healthy life, but aging has emerged as the primary risk factor for the most common fatal and disabling diseases.

  • The longer individuals live, the greater the influence of aging on disease expression.

  • Aging science offers medicine and public health a new and potentially far more effective weapon for preventing disease, extending healthy life, and avoiding the infirmities associated with old age.

  • Failing to take this new approach could leave people who reach older ages in the future even more vulnerable to rising disability than they are now.

  • Aging science represents a new paradigm of public health that has the potential to yield more effective methods of delaying most fatal and disabling diseases, extending healthy life, and reducing the prevalence of infirmities more commonly experienced at older ages
  • Although people who benefit from advances in aging science will probably live longer, the extension of healthy life is the primary goal. In addition, reductions in the infirmities of old age and increased economic value to individuals and societies would accrue from the extension of healthy life.

    It is only a matter of time before aging science acquires the same level of prestige and confidence that medicine and public health now enjoy, and when that time comes, a new era in human health will emerge. An abundance of formidable obstacles are standing in the way, including strongly held views of how to proceed, a history of association with dubious aging interventions, and misconceptions about the goals in mind and the impact of success on population growth and the environment. Once the air clears and aging science is translated into effective and safe interventions that can be measured and documented to extend our healthy years, the 21st century will bear witness to one of the most important new developments in the history of medicine.

    The article by Dan Perry is also worth reading:

    Like the rough beast of the famous poem by W. B. Yeats, a scientific consensus that aging might be slowed to avert chronic diseases in older people is slouching toward serious consideration in public policy.

    Richard Miller addressed a scientific audience a few years ago with an only slightly tongue-in-cheek assessment of why biogerontology has failed to be embraced as a panacea for age-related diseases and disability among the older population. Miller assessed the obstacles to finding a cure for aging as 85 percent political and 15 percent scientific. Among the political obstacles Miller noted:

  • Aging is viewed (incorrectly) as unalterable.

  • Drugs that actually slow aging cannot be tested in time to show a profit within the CEO's lifetime; whereas drugs purported to slow aging are highly profitable even though they don't work.

  • A politician who wants to "conquer cancer" is a hero.

  • A politician who wants to "slow aging" is a nut-case.
  • Regardless of which of Miller's hurdles are most daunting, the fact remains that federal funding of biomedical research continues to pursue cures and better treatments for specific diseases, especially for those with vocal constituencies. Recent developments, however, including congressional interest and creation of the trans-NIH Geroscience Interest Group (GSIG), are setting the stage for a determined push for increased federal support for age-modifying research with clinical potential.

    SENS and rejuvenation research is still not a part of this funding picture. Those involved are generally much more conservative, or at least feel the need to appear so in public. I think it will take more years of steady growth in funding and support for SENS, and the emergence of one or two important technology demonstrations in rejuvenation resulting from ongoing SENS Research Foundation projects for it to start to feature in discussions of large-scale funding and goals. All funding at this level is political, the public funding much more so of course, and change is slow.

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