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Scientists Think They Can Offer Us More Healthy Years. Now What?

Liz Seegert March 25, 2019

Why can some 80-year-olds run marathons while others become frail and ill? If geroscience can figure it out, we will all benefit from longer, healthier lives. 

Is 80 really the new 60? For some researchers, the answer is a qualified yes. Geroscientists—researchers who specialize in aging—are exploring ways to not only enjoy more years of life, but to enjoy more healthy years of life. So far, results in the lab are promising.

They’re not conducting some creepy lab experiments to create bionic superagers, or stirring up magic potions that tap into a mythical fountain of youth. Geroscience involves cross-disciplinary teams of dedicated researchers who are seeking to extend longevity, while mitigating chronic diseases—delaying or even avoiding onset of serious illness. And that has major implications across the longevity industry.

“What we’re trying to do is extend health,” says Steve Austad, scientific director at the American Federation for Aging Research. “Rather than focusing on cancer or heart disease or dementia, you focus on the underlying processes of aging, which deal with all of those.”

As we age, our risk for developing chronic diseases like diabetes, or conditions like arthritis increases. Researchers have traditionally focused on the causes and risk factors for these diseases. By studying what happens during aging at the genetic, molecular and cellular levels, scientists are honing in on the similarities and differences among these conditions, and how the aging and disease processes affect each other, according to the National Institute on Aging. Their goal is for cross-disciplinary, cross-agency collaboration that will lead to improved interventions for age-related diseases and conditions.

Geroscience assumes there are basic processes of aging that underlie many, if not all, of the diseases and disabilities in later life, explained Austad, who also chairs the department of biology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

“If we can somehow ameliorate those processes, it will impact all kinds of later life diseases and disabilities,” he said.  We can get to a later stage in life that’s more equivalent to 60 today, because people won’t develop some of these conditions, or if they do, it will happen much later. That means more healthier years, and a shorter, more compressed time with illness.

“I call it the epitome of preventive medicine, because it’s preventing tons of things,” he said. And while the reality of people living to age 500, or even 200, is highly unlikely, it’s certainly realistic to expect more people living to 100 or even 120, in reasonably good health.

Greater Longevity Will Bring Opportunities and System Demands

Austad also acknowledged the challenges that come with longer lives, even healthy ones. There is a the need for more health professionals trained in geriatric care, and more social services to support seniors. We also have to deal with the rampant ageism that already permeates society, especially as people stay in the workforce longer.

He predicted retirement age will likely increase, since healthier older people will want or need to work longer. “Think of the opportunities that will open up for people to have multiple careers and really rethink their trajectory—maybe go back to school and start something else when they’re 70.”

Housing is another commodity that will need rethinking, according to Nora Super, senior director, Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute.  “Baby boomers who don’t want to view themselves as seniors may seek opportunities for multi-generational housing. No one wants to live in something called senior housing.”

When assisted living communities were built, they were really sold to the adult daughter of the person who would live there, Super explained. Now there’s a shift as boomers try to figure out what they want after retirement.

As geroscience advances, we’ll likely see older people to extending their time in the workforce. “It’s just not realistic to think you’re going to work for 40 years and then support 30 years in retirement,” she said. Employers may need to consider more flexible work arrangements, or retrain older workers. “It’s a fine line, because we don’t want older workers to be seen as frail or less able,” she said.

Transportation, from ride-sharing to autonomous vehicles, will also take on an increasingly important role. Demand for services that get people to and from medical appointments, work or leisure activities will only increase, Super predicted. 

Service industries will need to adapt to this new reality as well. She pointed to the travel industry as being already ahead of the curve, by targeting older individuals with luxury travel, especially cruises.

“However, some industries still see older adults as frail and needy. They haven’t gotten it yet,” Super said.

The Future is Coming Fast For Longevity

Geroscience has already made huge strides and has come up with some amazing results, according to Austad. He thinks we’re close to viable interventions, pointing to the pending TAME trial of the diabetes drug Metformin as an example. “In the last two years, we’ve gone from basically having nothing to undergoing human trials,” he said. “And we have much better ways of testing on people, so it doesn’t take a 50-year trial to find out if something’s working.”

There are already very healthy, vigorous 90 and 95-year olds, which suggests that there’s nothing biologically impossible about healthy longevity. It’s just a question of figuring out how those people do it and see if we can do something similar for the rest of us, he said.

“Geroscience is going to provide some therapies that are going to allow another 10 or 20 years of healthy life, and society will adapt.”

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Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert is an independent health journalist based in New York City. She writes about aging, boomers, policy and related topics for online, print and broadcast media, and also co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

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