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White House Conference on Aging: Focus on the value of research

More than 70 years ago, Winston Churchill told the British people, “Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.”

As we approach this month’s 2015 White House Conference on Aging, Churchill’s wisdom is worth remembering.

{mosads}Today, average life expectancy is almost 80 years. But while we’ve added years to life, we haven’t always made those extra years healthy and vigorous. Eighty percent of seniors have at least one major chronic condition, and half have two or more.

And it’s not cheap. Chronic diseases of later life cost our nation more than $1 trillion per year and will increase to $6 trillion by 2050.

In years past the White House Conferences on Aging has urged seniors to “exercise, eat right, and socialize.” which places the onus of health and well-being on the individual.  Certainly healthy practices help reduce chronic disease risks, and it is good that the president encourages seniors to take better care of themselves.

But self-care needs to include recognition of the critical role that biomedical research plays in the health status of seniors, and indeed all of us.

Many of our cherished health and longevity gains have come from research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest source of biomedical research funding.

For example, death rates from cardiovascular disease have declined by more than 70 percent since 1963, with more than half of the decline coming in the last 20 years.  NIH–funded research has also led to development of vaccines to protect against life-threatening diseases such as influenza, meningitis, and cervical cancer.

Yet medical research itself is now on life support due to funding cuts. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, NIH budgets grew an average of 6 percent a year from 1994 until 2004, but have now sunk to less than 1 percent a year.

The president should call for a much-needed increase in NIH funding when the White House Conference on Aging convenes next Monday. Such a statement by the president would give support to nascent efforts in Congress to restore traditional support for NIH.

This conference should also urge older Americans to sign up for clinical trials of treatments that hold promise for themselves and future generations. An estimated 30 percent of National Cancer Institute-sponsored trials fail to enroll enough participants. Older adults are vastly under-represented, with only 25 percent of cancer trial enrollees ages 65 and older.

A Research!America poll finds that only 16 percent of Americans report they or a family member have participated in clinical research. However, 76 percent feel that such research is very important and would be very or somewhat likely to participate in a trial. 

There are many reasons why older people are not taking advantage of clinical trials: perceived financial issues, transportation barriers, and lack of awareness about trial availability. But a number of federal agencies are tackling this issue through the Recruiting Older Adults into Research (ROAR) program. It would take only seconds for the president to let Americans know about ROAR and to encourage older patients to discuss research study opportunities with their health care providers.

The White House Conference on Aging takes place once every 10 years. This year it would be especially important to recognize a new frontier in science that is revealing the “problem behind the problem” of chronic disease. “Geroscience” is the study of how the underlying processes of aging itself put us at risk to develop chronic disease. And it is on its way to modifying those processes through new medical strategies that could benefit millions.

Researchers have recently met with the FDA to discuss plans for the first-ever geroscience intervention trial. The goal of such research is to delay morbidity and extend healthspan, the length of our life spent healthy.

The economic payoff of such an intervention would be huge. One recent study found that an increase of only 2.2 years in healthy years of life would have an economic benefit of approximately $7.1 trillion by the middle of this century. That potential savings alone warrants a shout-out from the president.

Winston Churchill’s valuation of health is undeniable in the present. We should indeed exercise, eat right, and socialize. And we should all fight for policies that support continued advances from medical research to keep us healthier for years to come.

Peschin, MHS, is president and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research in Washington, D.C.



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