Two-Sides to the Aging Story – Good and Not So Good

There are two aspects to aging which most will recognize, the chronological passage of time which we associate with the benefits of increased experience and wisdom, and the increasing levels of dysfunction we experience as we get older.  One is welcome, the other less so. The ARN is concerned with the latter.

Age-Related Dysfunction

This chart describes the aging process from the point of view of increasing dysfunction and the different ways in which medicine and science try to deal with it.  In brief, the chemical processes of life, or metabolism, cause damage to our cells, such damage eventually accumulating to levels that result in the malfunction of a cell.  When enough cells become dysfunctional, we begin to see pathology emerge at the tissue level.  The tissue pathologies associated with aging are what lead to societal problems associated with aging.  At the molecular level, metabolism only gives rise to a few types of damage that can cause a cell to malfunction, and these few forms of damage give rise to the manifold disorders associated with getting older.  Our biology thankfully has the huge reserve capacity to withstand a lot of damage so it takes years for the accumulation  to reach levels that cause dysfunction, but the changes in our exteriors is mirrored internally as well and the trajectory is clear even if we are not yet suffering the problems of age-related illness. Of course once dysfunction sets in, there are a myriad number of social consequences which arise and with which we are all concerned, and which tremendous public resources are used dealing with.

Much of modern medicine is in fact geared towards dealing with dysfunction “after the fact” in the treatment of the chronic disorders of aging.  It is estimated that 80% of our health care dollars go to the treatment of age-related dysfunction.  The Milken Institute reported in Oct 2007 that in 2003 it cost 1.3 TRILLION DOLLARS per year in direct and indirect costs ameliorate the suffering of the aged. This is in stark contrast to the 150-200 Million Dollars actualy spent on studying aging which amounts to 1/6th of 1 percent of the yearly budget of the National Health Institute of 28 Billion dollars.  The reason for this disproportionate focus on spending on dysfunction instead of research is that aside from healthy lifestyle choices, little can presently be done to intervene in the aging process and people tend to disbelieve that serious progress will ever be made in addressing the dysfunction that accompanies the aging process.  Due to new breakthroughs this overly-pessimistic perspective is slowly changing.

Accelerate and Facilitate

The Aging Research Network seeks to fund biomedical and social sciences research aimed directly at accelerating the development of new therapies to slow or reverse the aging process.  To this end we also seek to form connections between traditionally disparate groups to broadly enhance awareness of the potential for the development of these therapies,  and create novel collaborations that share a common vision of dramatically reducing the suffering associated with the aging process.  Rest assured the benefits in the savings such technologies would provide in terms of health care dollars while at the same time allowing individuals to remain productive longer are obvious economic reasons for developing such therapies, but of course, the reduction of the suffering of an aging population is an ethical imperative in itself that requires us to make the most of emerging opportunities to deal with age-related disease.