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Study aging, not disease, for real benefits, scientists say

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TUESDAY, Oct. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Research into ways to delay aging would provide better overall health and economic benefits than advances in deadly diseases such as cancer or heart disease, according to a new study.

Even modest success in slowing aging would increase the number of healthy older adults by 5 percent every year between 2030 and 2060, the study suggests. That means there would be 11.7 million more healthy adults over age 65 in the United States in 2060, said the team of scientists from the University of Southern California, Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The researchers also estimated that the increase in healthy years of life would have an economic benefit of approximately $7.1 trillion over the next five decades, and that figure does not include the potential reduction in memory and thinking problems among older adults.

These calculations are based on the assumption that research would lead to a 1.25 percent decline in the risk of age-related diseases, according to the study, which was published in the October issue of the journal Health Affairs.

"In the last half-century, major life-expectancy gains were driven by finding ways to reduce mortality from fatal diseases," study lead author Dana Goldman, director of the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, said in a university news release.

"But now disabled life expectancy is rising faster than total life expectancy, leaving the number of years that one can expect to live in good health unchanged or diminished," Goldman said. "If we can age more slowly, we can delay the onset and progression of many disabling diseases simultaneously."

In contrast to treatments for deadly diseases, slowing aging would provide no health returns initially, but would offer significant benefits over the long term, the scientists said.

The number of Americans 65 and older is expected to more than double in the next 50 years, from 43 million in 2010 to 106 million in 2060. Currently, about 28 percent of Americans over age 65 are disabled.

"Even a marginal success in slowing aging is going to have a huge impact on health and quality of life," corresponding author S. Jay Olshansky, of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said in the news release. "This is a fundamentally new approach to public health that would attack the underlying risk factors for all fatal and disabling diseases."

"We need to begin the research now," he said. "We don't know which mechanisms are going to work to actually delay aging, and there are probably a variety of ways this could be accomplished, but we need to decide now that this is worth pursuing."

The researchers noted that several lines of research have already shown how people might age more slowly, including studying the genetics of people with long life spans. Other studies have slowed the signs of aging in animals through the use of drugs or treatments such as restricting calorie intake.

The researchers believe, however, that this study is the first to assess the costs and health benefits of finding ways to delay aging.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines good health habits for people 60 and older.

Copyright © 2013 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

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