A sweeping cultural change in the aging research community has taken place over the past fifteen years. It was a culture in which talking in public about the prospects for the treatment of aging and extension of healthy life was a good way to sabotage your career, and that certainly suppressed progress at a time when new technologies allowed the exploration of extending healthy life spans in laboratory animals. Now, however, many researchers freely raise funding, speak out about treating aging as a disease, and work towards that goal. This sea change didn't happen by accident: it required hard work and advocacy on the part of many groups both within and outside the scientific community to break the old barriers and bring the perception of legitimacy to longevity science. The reward for all of that work is that those formerly opposed now pretend that they agreed all along that it is a great idea to work on helping people to live much longer healthy lives through medical science.
One result of this change in attitudes and speech is that scientific conference series are becoming just as open about the goal of developing therapies for the causes of degenerative aging. A recent addition to the conference circuit was the 2014 International Conference on Aging and Disease, held in Beijing last November. Here are some very readable open access position papers resulting from the event:
The primary stated goal of the International Society on Aging and Disease is "to improve the quality of lives through stimulating research into the association between aging and aged-related disease". The society's concise motto is simply: "Stop Aging Disease!" The conference made yet another step in advancing this goal by "fostering communication among researchers and practitioners working in a wide variety of scientific areas with a common interest in fighting aging and aged-related disease."
The importance of those goals cannot be overestimated, and this importance was further emphasized in the conference resolution and in the position paper issued by the ISOAD following the conference. As the resolution and the position paper state, the degenerative aging processes and related diseases are the gravest challenge to global public health. They cause the largest proportion of disability and mortality worldwide, and should be addressed with the urgency and effort corresponding to the severity of the problem. The weight of the problem of aging-related degeneration and the urgent need for solutions was acknowledged by the conference participants. Yet, beyond the description of the problem, the conference presented a wide array of strategies to tackle it. It emphasized the paramount strategy of connecting the study of aging and aging-related diseases, no longer just exclusively addressing individual diseases and symptoms, but relating them to their unifying determinative factors - the degenerative processes of ageing.
Over the past decades, the average life expectancy has increased globally. Currently, while the longest life expectancies are still found in the "developed" countries, the fastest and largest increase has been recorded in the "developing" world. Considering the demographics of the world population, between 2000 and 2050 the proportion of people over 60 years will double from about 11% to 22%, which, in absolute terms, means an increase from 605 million to 2 billion people. Although the increasing life expectancy generally reflects positive human development, new challenges are arising. They stem from the fact that growing older is still inherently associated with biological and cognitive degeneration, although the severity and speed of cognitive decline, physical frailty and psychological impairment can vary between individuals.
Nonetheless, degenerative aging processes are the major underlying cause for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, ischemic heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and others. Mental health deterioration due to chronic neurodegenerative diseases represents the largest cause of disability in the world, responsible for over 20% of years lived with disability. Hence, major efforts must be directed toward their alleviation.
New directions in research and development take a more holistic approach for tackling the degenerative processes and negative biological effects of human aging, addressing several major fundamental causes of aging and aging-related diseases at once and in an interrelated manner. For example, at the 2013 US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Geroscience Summit, the following priority research areas have been identified: Adaptation to Stress, Epigenetics, Inflammation, Macromolecular Damage, Metabolism, Proteostasis, and Stem Cells/Regeneration, but there are several other examples of similar approaches, prioritizing research of major sets of aging processes. Instead of targeting single age-related diseases, the mechanisms of the aging process itself are being analyzed with the goal of finding ways for intervention and prevention. Such approaches are very promising, for the following reasons:
1) They are already supported by scientific proofs of concept, involving the evidential increase in healthy lifespan in animal models and the emerging technological capabilities to intervene into fundamental aging processes.
2) They can provide solutions to a number of non-communicable, age-related diseases, insofar as such diseases are strongly determined by degenerative aging processes (such as chronic inflammation, cross-linkage of macromolecules, somatic mutations, loss of stem cell populations, and others). Moreover, they are likely to decrease susceptibility of the elderly also to communicable diseases due to improvements in immunity.
3) The innovative, applied results of such research and development will lead to sustainable solutions for a large array of age-related medical and social challenges that may be globally applicable.
4) Such research and development should be supported on ethical grounds, to provide equal health care chances for the elderly as for the young.
Therefore it is the societal duty, especially of the professionals in biology, medicine, health care, economy and socio-political organizations to strongly recommend greater investments in research and development dealing with the understanding of mechanisms associated with the human biological aging process and translating these insights into safe, affordable and universally available applied technologies and treatments.