Efforts to Delay Aging are Solid Investment

October 9, 2013

Research to delay aging and the infirmities of old age would have better population health and economic returns than advances in individual fatal diseases such as cancer or heart disease, according to a study published in the October issue of the journal Health Affairs. With even modest gains in our scientific understanding of how to slow the aging process, an additional 5 percent of adults over the age of 65 would be healthy rather than disabled every year from 2030 to 2060. Authors of the paper include Dr. John Rowe, Mailman School of Public Health professor of Health Policy and Management and chair of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society.

While earlier research has shown how we might age more slowly, until now, no assessment has been made of the costs and health returns on developing therapies for delayed aging.

An investment in delayed aging would mean 11.7 million more healthy adults over the age of 65 in 2060. The analysis, according to Dr. Rowe and other leading researchers on aging from USC, Harvard, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, assumes research investment leading to a 1.25 percent reduction in the likelihood of age-related diseases. In contrast to treatments for fatal diseases, slowing aging would have no health returns initially, but would have significant benefits over the long term.

In the United States, the number of people aged 65 and over is expected to more than double in the next 50 years, from 43 million in 2010 to 106 million in 2060. About 28 percent of the current population over 65 is disabled.

The study shows significantly lower and declining returns for continuing the current research "disease model," which seeks to treat fatal diseases independently, rather than tackling the shared, underlying cause of frailty and disability: aging itself.

Lowering the incidence of cancer by 25 percent in the next few decades – in line with the most favorable historical trends – would barely improve population health over not doing anything at all, the analysis showed. The same is true of heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide: About the same number of older adults would be alive but disabled in 2060 whether we do nothing or continue to combat cancer and heart disease individually. The findings are in line with earlier research showing that curing cancer completely would only increase life expectancy by about three years.

The study shows that, with major advances in cancer treatment or heart disease, a 51-year-old can expect to live about one more year. A modest improvement in delaying aging would double this to two additional years — and those years are much more likely to be spent in good health.
The increase in healthy years of life would have an economic benefit of approximately $7.1 trillion over the next five decades, the researchers find. Their analysis did not account for the potential cognitive benefits for older adults with research in delayed aging.

However, the results of the study also show that improving the population of healthy, older adults will not lower overall health care spending. With research advances in delayed aging, more people would be alive past the age of 65, which means significantly higher outlays for Medicare and Medicaid despite less per-person spending on medical costs.

This research was supported by the MetLife Foundation through the MetLife Foundation Silver Scholar Award, administered by the Alliance for Aging Research. Additional support for this research came from the Ellison Medical Foundation and the American Federation for Aging Research. The development of the Future Elderly Model was supported by the National Institute of Aging of the National Institutes of Health (grants: P30AG024968, RC4AG039036) and the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society.