Aging is a fundamental biological process that we all live with. Everyone who grows to adulthood observes this slow but inexorable process firsthand. The process of aging, while universal is not uniform. Some people, though visibly aging, remain healthy and mentally sharp into their eighth, ninth, or tenth decades while others suffer dementia, cancer, or frailty of the muscles or bones. The study of aging sets out to better understand how these differences and diseases associated with aging occur in order to build the foundation for extending the period of time that a person is healthy and active. To that end, our institute houses leaders in several different diseases associated with aging. These areas include neurodegeneration, which is associated with dementia and senility; cancer, which is associated with morbidity and mortality; stroke, which is associated with both cognitive and physical disabilities; and ocular degeneration which is a growing problem as more people enter old age.
Current demographic trends show that the portion of the population that is aged 65 and older is increasing for reasons that include changes in lifestyle such as a decline in smoking rates, and a resulting decline in fatal diseases such as lung cancer, stroke and heart disease. Additionally, the large post-world war two generation of baby boomers have now begun to reach retirement age. These demographic changes mean an increased proportion of GDP will be spent on health care for these individuals, while both the prevalence and incidence of some diseases of aging in the population will increase along with the portion of population that is elderly. Money spent diagnosing, treating and preventing diseases such as cancer and dementia is predicted to translate to lower costs for social insurance programs such as Medicare, and will translate into improved quality of life for individuals.
An example: Deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased by 66% in the 8 years from 2000 to 2008. In this same period deaths from stroke have declined by 20% and deaths from heart disease have declined by 13%. There are currently around 5 million people who live with Dementias such as Alzheimer’s Disease in the United State and this number is projected to increase to 11 million by 2040. Chronic diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s impose direct and indirect costs upon families, individuals and society at large. For example, average Medicare payments to beneficiaries without Alzheimer’s or other dementias averaged $13,879 per person per year, while beneficiaries with Alzheimer’s cost Medicare an average of $43,847 per person per year (2011 dollars). Total costs to Medicare for Alzheimer’s were estimated to be $140 billion dollars in 2012. By comparison, the total NIH budget for fiscal year 2015 is set at just under $30 billion dollars (2014 dollars).
Aside from the cold hard reality of fiscal burden associated with a rise in diseases of aging, there are the human realities associated with diseases of aging. Whether it is watching a loved one lose their sense of self, ability to walk, or succumb to cancer; diseases of aging are both a financial burden to society at large and a personal tragedy for those who will live them.
For these reasons, the Buck Institute is dedicated to conducting research that will positively influence the healthy years of life or “healthspan” of individuals. This blog is a concerted effort on the part of the Institute’s researchers to communicate about the topics and issues that are related to this area of research.