Can Science Slow the Aging Process? Aging Could Become a Treatable Disease

Aging is a reality ... or is it. Congress is reviewing the potential societal, ethical, and economic implications of aging breakthroughs. A Congressional committee is learning that aging therapies being evaluated may be seismic in their impact.

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Can Science Slow the Aging Process? Aging Could Become a Treatable Disease
5 Min Read September 16th, 2022

Is there a fountain of youth around the corner? If so, what impact on society and the economy would defeating the 'disease of aging' have on the country and the world?

Members of Congress heard from scientists during a Congressional hearing about Geroscience and the efforts to extend not just lifespan but the amount of time individual lives in good health. How will slowing down the aging process impact society?

Geroscience seeks to define the biological mechanisms of aging that give rise to numerous age-related diseases and disorders. Research in this area can lead to many advances which can alter how people age and their quality of life.

Testimony before the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight said there is now testing on human aging interventions through small FDA-approved clinical trials.

Healthspan – Healthy Lifespan

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, said the goal of increasing healthy lifespan – what he calls healthspan – may come within sight.  

Rep. Bill Foster

We didn't used to think of aging as a disease, but that may be changing. Rather than looking at individual conditions, the entire process of aging is being considered as the driving factor behind increasing morbidities. And because of the analytical tools that have been developed through decades of federally funded research, scientists now have the ability to break down aging into a collection of biological events and developing deep knowledge about how it happens at the cellular level.

Reducing the Risk of Chronic Illnesses – a Fountain of Youth?

Foster says the objective is to develop aging therapeutics to reduce the risk of diseases and health conditions associated with old age. Aging often results in declining health, mobility problems, dementia, and frailty, which leads to many Americans needing long-term health care. Those costs are devastating to American families and finances as well as government budgets. 

The Medicaid program pays most of the long-term health care expenses in the U.S., but an individual must have little or no income and assets to quality. Many families spend their savings to pay for care, and family caregivers often provide some of the care. In the end, the taxpayer pays for the care since many families don't consider long-term care in their retirement planning. 

Dr. Jay Olshansky, Professor of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says all of us are experiencing aging firsthand. He told the committee that decades ago science had targeted the idea of aging but too little was known at that time.

Olshansky testified that medical science isn't creating a fountain of youth, but advances will fundamentally change what it means to grow old.

Dr. Jay Olshansky

We will remain younger longer. Retain our youthful vigor for an extended period of time and compress everything we don't like about aging into a shorter duration of time at the end of life.

Olshansky explained that the compression of morbidity, a term that means the expression of health problems or disability, would be delayed, perhaps to age 90. The hope is when things go wrong, they will happen more rapidly. He said about 15% of the super-agers are already seeing this happen. 

He says these super-agers are already getting beyond age 80 cognitively and physically intact, where you hardly tell the difference between them and a 40 or 50-year-old. We will not stop aging or dying, but we can have more vigor into much older ages.

It’s what we want, a healthier life for a longer time period - where age is just a number, it becomes largely irrelevant.

Searching for the Fountain of Youth to Increase Healthspan

Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-CA), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said that for thousands of years, mankind has been searching for the fountain of youth. He says that in the last several hundred years, it has become abundantly clear that the fountain of youth is going to be discovered through science.  

Obernolte says the goal is not to end aging but improving the period of healthy living or healthspan.

Rep. Jay Obernolte

This means not necessarily extending the lifespan but extending healthy life before aging-related diseases are able to take hold. If achievable, this could have huge implications on society, as the physical and mental effects of aging are slowed, and we are able to live healthy lives for a longer time.

Healthspan May Bring Challenges

In his opening statement, Chairmen Foster said several things need to be considered as we advance into expanding lifespans.

  • If you extend the "healthspan," do you also extend the lifespan and simply delay the protracted aging process to a later date? 
  • What happens to health care costs and the burden on our health system? 
  • Would we see people in their 60s starting second careers, and what would that mean for the broader labor force? 
  • Can insurance companies change your premiums based on whether you take the aging therapy?

The World is Getting Older

Dr. Laura Niedernhofer, Director of the Institute on the Biology of Aging and Metabolism and Medical Discovery Team on the Biology of Aging at the University of Minnesota, pointed to several facts that need to be considered.

She said that we live in an unprecedented period in human history in which the number of elderly doubles and surpasses the number of young people. There must be a new approach to prevent the health care system from becoming overwhelmed and health care costs skyrocketing. 

For the first time in U.S. history older adults are projected to outnumber children by 2034.

The majority of people over the age of 65 have two or more chronic diseases. Hence, curing a single disease of old age will not dramatically improve the health of the elderly.

 Dr. Niedernhofer noted several chronic health issues associated with aging:

  • Osteoporosis 
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Neurodegenerative diseases 
  • Osteoarthritis 
  • Type II diabetes 
  • Cancer 
  • Macular degeneration 
  • Intervertebral disc degeneration

The older someone gets the greater the risk of a chronic illness: 

Frequency of diseases by chronological age

Chronologic age contributes to the risk of most diseases to a much greater extent than other risk factors that we are currently treating. Thus, therapeutics targeting aging biology have the potential to be not only useful for many diverse diseases but also highly effective at doing so compared to current first-line drugs.

Niedernhofer told the committee that she cared for four parents or grandparents over the last two decades, each of whom had multiple co-morbidities. She said she can attest that it is time-consuming, costly, and heartbreaking.

Can’t Stop Time

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said we cannot stop time. She expressed her pleasure that the consensus in the scientific community is not chasing immortality. She said if Geroscience succeeds in its grandest promises, there will be a host of ethical questions to consider.

What we need to do is increase our healthy years and mitigate the health concerns brought on by age. And we need to ensure equal and affordable access to the tools and therapeutics that increase everyone's healthspan.

Chronic illnesses and other aging-related problems lead many people to need help with daily living activities or supervision due to dementia. Long-term health care costs are exploding and are expected to continue to increase in the decades ahead, according to the LTC NEWS Cost of Care Calculator.

Paying for Long-Term Health Care Creates Burdens

Traditional health insurance, including Medicare and supplements, pays for a limited amount of skilled long-term care services. Medicaid will only pay if the care recipient has little or no income or assets. Long-Term Care Insurance will pay for these services, but you must purchase a policy well ahead of health changes. Typically, most people have done so in their 50s, but many people fail to explore getting coverage until they have experienced a significant health issue.

If longevity increases, the question of being prepared for that impact will have to be addressed since it is already a massive issue. While only about 7.5 million adults own a Long-Term Care Insurance policy, policies paid over $12.3 Billion in benefits in 2021 from those policies. Many experts suggest that number will double in the next decade. However, if Geroscience becomes successful, there will be many questions about how to address the potentially increased amount of long-term health care that may come from that.

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