“We don’t want to extend lifespans at all costs,” James Kirkland, M.D., said last week at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. “We don’t want to live to 130 and feel like 130.” Rather, Kirkland told attendees, “The ideal might be to live to 100 and feel like 50.”
Tuesday’s hearing was held the day before a group of researchers met in Washington, D.C., for a conference on geroscience. That’s an area of study focusing on the biological processes of aging and how they might be manipulated to reduce the occurrence and severity of chronic disease and maximize health across an individual’s lifespan.
Geroscience is hot right now and getting hotter. The reasons are obvious: More people are surviving into senior citizenhood; the proportion of the so-called “old-old” — people 80 and above — is growing; and birthrates in many areas of the world are declining. As National Institute on Aging Director Richard Hodes, M.D., noted at the hearing, “For the first time in human history, sometime in this decade there will be more people on our planet over 65 than under 5.”
Until recently, aging itself was considered the primary risk factor for chronic disease, and the biological processes of aging were considered irreversible. However, new research into the underlying molecular and cellular processes of aging suggest otherwise, according to the Geroscience Interest Group, “raising the hope that there might be ways to capitalize on these discoveries to improve health as the population ages.”
This isn’t pie in the sky. “Since 2009, scientists have found some pharmacological interventions that can actually manipulate these processes in some way, to some degree, similar to lifestyle interventions like caloric intake or exercise,” Kirkland said. So far, the research has been confined to lab animals, but scientists expect human testing to start soon and that similar results will apply.
“The prospect that we might be able to target the fundamental aging mechanisms and delay them as a group instead of dealing with them one at a time only to have another one take over a month later is extremely exciting,” Kirkland said.
To help the science move forward, though, the government must play a bigger supporting role, experts say. “We simply cannot afford to continue public policy the way we invented it in 20th century in a different demographic time,” said Michael Hodin, executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging and managing partner in the High Lantern Group. “We should think about spending [on geroscience] as an investment rather than a cost.”
And, Hodin said, we should stop thinking that it only matters to the senior population.
“This is about young people, our children and our children’s children,” he said. “It’s often characterized in terms of the baby boomers, but it’s really about a demographic trend that will affect at least the next two or three generations.”