Healthy Aging Month: How we can all live better longer

Eric Verdin, MD

September is Healthy Aging Month, and here at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, we are on a mission to end the threat of age-related disease for this and future generations. We believe it is possible for people to enjoy healthy lives at age 95 as much as they do at 25, and to achieve that, we’re seeking a more comprehensive understanding of the biology of aging itself.

Over the last century, average human lifespan has been increasing at a rate of approximately 2 years per decade, primarily due to advancements in antibiotics and other medical treatments, as well as improved public health efforts. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2035, people over the age of 65 will outnumber people under 18 for the first time in U.S. history. This means that there is an increasing population of older adults who suffer in the later years of life from chronic diseases including diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. While basic scientific research has provided a lot of insight into the causes and potential treatments of individual diseases, the root cause of these and many other chronic diseases is the biological process of aging.

The goal of the Buck Institute and several other aging research groups across the country is to study and understand more about the underlying mechanisms of aging so that we may find new therapeutic targets to help us delay or even eradicate age-related diseases. The results so far are very compelling. By focusing on the biological mechanisms of aging such as cellular senescence (normal cells stop dividing), chronic inflammation, and changes in metabolism, scientists have been able to extend the disease-free lifespan of laboratory model organisms including flies, worms, and mice. The challenge now is to translate these discoveries into the clinic and determine the best preventative practices to maintain health throughout our lifetime.

Funding for this field of research is absolutely imperative for a healthy, aging population. While research aimed at understanding and treating individual chronic diseases is still highly valuable, a recent study estimated that the economic value of delaying aging by an average 2.2 years of healthy life could be more than $7 trillion over the next 50 years. To put this into context, the total research budget for the NIH last year was about $37 billion, and of this just over $2 billion was allocated to the National Institute of Aging to fund aging research. The potential return-on-investment of federal and private research dollars emphasizes our need to accelerate basic aging research. But most important is the impact that discoveries from aging research will have on the lives of millions of older adults in this country and worldwide, and the possibility of a long and healthy future to come.

Dr. Eric Verdin is President and CEO, Buck Institute for Research on Aging

 

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