What happens to quality of life when science actually slows the aging process? That’s what the emerging field of geroscience is all about, according to an interdisciplinary panel of researchers at this year’s Gerontological Society of America Conference. Geroscience tackles biological factors of chronic diseases and aging itself as a risk factor for developing chronic diseases. It has numerous implications for extending healthy life span, enhancing quality of life in later years and impacting public policy surrounding aging and long-term care.
Or, as S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., professor at the school of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago calls it, the Longevity Dividend. “This is a very short way of saying we’re trying to find a way to extend the period of healthy life by going after all the things that go wrong with us as we grow older, which is to go after the biological process of aging itself.”
Olshansky was one of several aging research experts who participated in a press briefing on the topic at last month’s conference, along with Gordon Lithgow, Ph.D., from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, James Kirkland, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Kogod Center on Aging at the Mayo Clinic, Daniel Perry, president of the Alliance for Aging Research, John Rowe, M.D., past GSA president and professor in Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, Felipe Sierra, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Aging Biology. The session was moderated by Roger McCarter, Ph.D., of professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University and current president of the American Federation for Aging Research.
Barbara Peters Smith reported in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on how this roomful of top aging researchers focused on the need for an interdisciplinary, inter-organizational approach to make the later years of life productive, healthy and high-quality.
One of the challenges, according to Sierra, is to encourage agencies to think more broadly about aging. ”At the NIA we have a lot of different institutes and each one is concerned with one little aspect of the whole aging and disease process. We do collaborate with each other on several things across the NIH, but really we work semi-independently. So how do we increase awareness on the importance of aging as a malleable factor?”
Although everyone understands that aging is the major risk factor for most chronic disease, he said the goal was to get all of the institutes of the NIH to collaborate on prevention, increase the conversation on aging and take it into account while researching specific diseases like diabetes and cancer.
Geroscience places the underlying biology of aging at the center of all disease research. This discipline is emerging at just the right time, according to AIA’s Perry. He noted that 10,000 people turn 65 each day in the U.S. and “it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we could be facing a silver tsunami of age-related chronic diseases that could crush Medicare, Medicaid, private savings, insurance and all of the rest, unless we find answers from a better understanding of aging to postpone, delay, modify, or prevent all together some of these conditions.”
Scientists have already learned how to modify the aging process in the lab in mammals, almost at will, he said. “As you do you also eradicate or greatly postpone the whole array of disease we associate with rising risks that come with aging. and this suggests that if we can make the leap from what we’ve learned from animal studies into humans as indeed I believe we must, there will be a tremendous benefit for our country and for our world. As Lithgow explains 3:15 into this 2013 Health Extension video, the mechanisms of aging and the mechanisms of disease are tightly intertwined.
Aging is a public health issue as much as it is a medical issue, Rowe said. As more people live longer, “the future American family is not going to be able to serve as a safety net and how are we going to compensate for those changes and what kind of public policies do we need to do so?” He reminded journalists that from a public health point of view there is an epidemic of chronic disease among the elderly in the U.S. – most older people have two or more chronic diseases – so there’s a need for more focus on prevention. One way to do that is to slow the aging process itself. Healthy older people can contribute a great deal to society – whether working or volunteering – so the longevity dividend can and will affect public policy down the road.
Additionally, Perry pointed out that “biology of aging has the potential to inform our investment in medical research. It leads to increasing the health span, the value of life and ultimately the value for all of society.”