A few weeks ago I happily touted a study challenging the notion that as we live longer, most older Americans face multiple chronic illnesses that will disable us for years. In fact, the study from Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research found a “compression of morbidity” in which disablement comes, if at all, in a much more compact period of time closer to death. People are “both living more years disability-free and fewer years disabled,” researchers said.
Now another study suggests that so-called “delayed aging” could extend the healthy life of people in old age. Researchers, writing in Health Affairs (secure link), suggest that the traditional focus of medical research on combating individual diseases such as heart disease and cancer “would yield diminishing improvements in health and longevity by 2060.” That’s mainly because “competing causes of death … cluster within individuals as they reach older ages,” increasing the risk of death and causing frailty and disabilities.
Rather, the authors propose that slowing the aging process — by focusing on the underlying biology of aging — could delay the onset and progression of all fatal and disabling diseases simultaneously.
Scientists have successfully extended the healthy lifespan of certain invertebrates and mammals by manipulating genes, altering reproduction, reducing caloric intake, modulating hormone levels, and by other experimental means. None of that may be directly applicable to humans, but, as the Health Affairs article notes, “may lead scientists in the right direction.”
Delayed aging could increase life expectancy by 2.2 years and generate more than $5 trillion in “social value,” researchers say. They suggest that the dramatically increased costs for programs such as Medicare and Social Security could be managed through modest policy changes. “With people staying healthy until a much later age, it might be more feasible to justify raising the eligibility age for public programs for seniors,” they write.