Ageing Research Provides Better Public Health Returns
October 9, 2013

Ageing Research Gets More Bang For The Buck Than Studying Cancer Or Heart Disease

Rebekah Eliason for – Your Universe Online

Although heart disease and cancer are two of the top killers in the US, a recent study has shown that focusing on research that delays aging instead of treating individual fatal diseases would provide broader population health benefits and yield greater economic returns.

Even a small increase in understanding the aging process would cut down on the number of disabled adults leading to a five percent increase in healthy adults over 65 each year from 2030 to 2060. Assuming only a modest 1.25 percent reduction in age-related diseases, 11.7 million additional adults would remain healthy over the age of 65 by the year 2060. Although slowing aging does not produce immediate benefits, over time the results can have a snowball effect.

Currently about 28 percent of adults over 65 in the United States are disabled. The number of adults over 65 in the United States is expected to double over the next 50 years which is an increase of 43 million in 2010 to 106 million in 2060.

Dana Goldman, the Leonard D. Schaeffer Director's Chair at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics and lead author of the study said, “In the last half-century, major life expectancy gains were driven by finding ways to reduce mortality from fatal diseases, but now disabled life expectancy is rising faster than total life expectancy, leaving the number of years that one can expect to live in good health unchanged or diminished. If we can age more slowly, we can delay the onset and progression of many disabling diseases simultaneously.”

Over the next several decades, even if cancer rates were reduced by 25 percent, little improvement on overall population health would be observed compared to now. This is also true for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death worldwide. In 2060, approximately the same number of adults would be alive but disabled regardless of research efforts to target diseases individually. Previous research has shown that if cancer were cured completely, overall life expectancy would only increase by about three years.

Jay Olshanksy of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago and corresponding author said, “Even a marginal success in slowing aging is going to have a huge impact on health and quality of life. This is a fundamentally new approach to public health that would attack the underlying risk factors for all fatal and disabling diseases, we need to begin the research now. We don't know which mechanisms are going to work to actually delay aging, and there are probably a variety of ways this could be accomplished, but we need to decide now that this is worth pursuing.”

There are already several studies on the genetics of “centenarians” and other long-lived people who are shedding light on how the human body might be made to age more slowly. Through the use of pharmaceuticals or interventions like caloric restriction, some success in slowing the signs of aging was shown in animal models.

Previously, no estimation was made on how costs and health returns would improve through the development of therapies to delay aging. Olshansky said, “We would be affecting every generation. This study is a benchmark in the world of public health.”

This study shows that major breakthroughs for cancer treatment or heart disease would increase the life expectancy of an average 51 year old by one year. However, only small amounts of advancements in delaying aging would increase that life expectancy by two years. Those extra two years would also be more likely spent in good health.

Researchers found the economic benefit of more healthy years to be about $7.1 trillion over the next 50 years. These findings did not account for potential cognitive benefits for adults with delayed aging research.

Although economic benefit would increase, results of the study show that overall health care spending would not be lowered. Since more people over the age of 65 would be alive, Medicare and Medicaid would have significantly higher outlays even though less would be spent per-person.

“Shifting the focus of medical investment to delayed aging instead of targeting diseases individually would lead to significant gains in physical health and social engagement,” Goldman said. “We see extremely large population health benefits, and the benefits will extend to future generations. There are major fiscal challenges, but these are manageable with reasonable policy changes, and the economic value of such a shift is too large to ignore.”