For our species, aging is by far the greatest single cause of suffering and death. It is presently inevitable, affects everyone, and produces a drawn out decline of pain and disability, leading to a horrible death through progressive organ failure of one sort or another. The integrity of the mind is consumed along with the vitality of the body. Aging is the cause of death of 90% or more of the people who live in wealthier regions of the world, and the majority of those even in the poorest regions. More than 100,000 lives every day are lost to aging, and hundreds of millions more are suffering on their way to that fate.
Yet very little funding goes towards medical research in general, and of that only a tiny fraction is devoted towards means to slow and reverse aging. If arriving from the outside, uninformed, one might think that this is rational on the part of funding entities, and assume that it indicates the lack of a clear path towards treatments to aging. But it is not rational. Finding ways to treat aging as a medical condition, and bring it under control to slow or reverse its consequences, is not a fishing expedition. It is not a blind hunt with slim hopes of success. On the contrary, the underlying mechanisms of aging are well cataloged and comparatively well understood. There is a clear road forward towards treatments that will greatly reduce the suffering and death that presently accompanies old age, and thus greatly extend the healthy human life span.
Every life lost is a tragedy. That we expect to be diminished, damaged, and killed by aging doesn’t make it any less of a tragedy. Everyone who dies due to aging has friends and family who are hurt by their absence, achievements left undone, a shadow of a greater and longer life that he or she might have lived if given the chance. Every tragic story about lost potential, lost friends, and untimely ending is repeated millions of times each month around the world. And for the most part we all stand by and pretend that this does not happen, and pretend that there is nothing that can be done. The present poor state of funding and development for therapies to treat aging is irrational.
Perhaps you hope that the U.S. government will be able to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development with its $10 billion program ‘Operation Warp Speed‘. Maybe it will. However, if these are your primary concerns, then getting funding for aging research should be a top priority, especially if you are an older adult, or if you have friends or family that are elderly. As you are probably aware, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affects older adults. In fact, 80% of hospitalizations from Covid-19 are adults older than 65 years of age. Although the novel coronavirus may be your top concern at this time, I suggest you turn your attention to an underlying disease process ubiquitous in humans that receives far less attention: aging. If we could treat aging itself, the effects of this pandemic would certainly be muted.
To an outside observer, aging has a fairly obvious phenotype: hair graying and thinning, and skin wrinkling beginning in our third and fourth decades of life, some loss of height, tooth decay and the need for glasses in our fourth, fifth, and sixth decades of life, and age spots, loss of muscle tone and strength, diminished height, and aches and pains in the decades after that. We all know that these unwanted changes occur as we age, and yet we do not talk about aging as though it is a disease. If you walk into a doctor’s office at the age of 65 and complain that you are old with a laundry list of age-related problems, the doctor may be able to help with some of your symptoms, but will have nothing to offer you to treat their underlying cause.
Appropriate funding and attention should be given to research in gerontology, the study of aging, but instead the issue is being sidelined while it continues to wreak havoc on humanity. Aging should be treated like any other disease, since the biological underpinnings of aging are becoming better understood every day and potential therapies are being investigated, albeit slowly.
Scientists and aging researchers have garnered a great deal of knowledge regarding the biological mechanisms of aging in recent years. However, there is still much to learn about the drivers of aging, especially in regards to how the nine hallmarks of aging affect one another. The more we know about the biology of aging, the easier it will be to develop therapies that target the specific causes of aging. With the knowledge we have, scientists at universities and in the private sector are already at work developing potential treatments for aging.
Recent research suggests that aging is treatable and potentially reversible. The identification of the nine inter-related hallmarks of aging in the 2013 review paper “The Hallmarks of Aging” brought the notion that aging could be addressed therapeutically into the mainstream and spawned a flurry of research into the aging process. At the time of this writing “The Hallmarks of Aging” has been cited over six thousand times. Additionally, the advent of new technologies for genetic programming, such as CRISPR-Cas9 in 2013, discoveries in the field of stem cells, most notably the discovery of Yamanaka factors, to generate Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (IPSCs) from somatic cells in 2006, and technological advancements in the field of proteomics such as more precise and efficient microscopy, histology, and mass spectrometry, have given scientists the tools necessary to attempt to target the hallmarks of aging and repair them. Advances such as these have led to several anti-aging breakthroughs in recent years, with a central theme being that targeting just one hallmark of aging usually confers benefits to multiple other hallmarks.
Federal funding for aging research comes from the National Institute on Aging (NIA). The NIA is a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the largest biomedical research agency on Earth, and the medical research arm of the U.S. department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The NIA is requesting $3.2 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2021, a decrease of about 10% from FY 2020. The NIA will only allocate 10% of its budget, $322.6 million, to its Division of Aging Biology (DAB), which “supports research to determine the basic biochemical and genetic mechanisms underlying the processes of aging at the cell, tissue, and organ levels and the ways these are communicated among cells and tissues of the body.”
The research done by the DAB is arguably closest to what we mean in regards to research on the biology of aging, yet it receives only 10% of the NIA budget. The NIA’s requested budget for FY 2021 is only 0.24% of the United States proposed discretionary budget for 2021, and the NIA’s DAB budget is only 0.024% of the United States discretionary budget. Aging research is far too valuable to only account for less than a quarter of a percent of discretionary funding. And research on the biology of aging through the DAB, which includes research on treating aging with therapies such as senolytics, is receiving a negligible amount of funding given the enormous potential of such therapies to slow or reverse aging.