A modest proposal to slow aging and extend healthy life.

What's to come?
Nov. 12 2010 10:29 AM

A Wrinkle in Time

A modest proposal to slow aging and extend healthy life.

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This work is essential because without it we are facing a demographic certainty that there will be millions more very old people in the coming decades with conditions of extreme frailty and disability—some of which will be inadvertently caused by successful efforts to extend life by attacking fatal diseases. Slowing the aging process by an achievable three to seven years would simultaneously postpone all fatal and nonfatal disabling diseases, produce gains in health and longevity equivalent to cures for major fatal diseases, and create scientific, medical, and economic windfalls for future generations that would be roughly equivalent in impact to the discovery of antibiotics in the 20th century.

Medical institutes and public health professionals across the globe are dedicated to combating the causes and consequences of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and a myriad of other fatal and disabling conditions that plague humanity, and many people are alive today because of their heroic efforts. These battles need to continue. But so too should we fight on a new front: aging itself. The cost to create the longevity dividend is estimated to be about 1 percent of the current Medicare budget—an estimated $3 billion annual investment for just a few years that would create such a savings to health care that it would more than pay for itself.

The underlying premise of the longevity dividend is controversial—our medical world is entrenched in a one-disease-at-a-time model. But we must recognize that this model will never prevent the predations of old age. Our battle with death will inevitably fail, but proponents of the longevity dividend contend that death is not where the battle lines should be drawn. Scientific evidence now strongly supports the idea that it's time to invest in the future of humanity by encouraging the commensurate political will, public support, and resources required to slow aging, and to do so now, so that most people currently alive might benefit from the investment. Extending healthy life would be one of the most important gifts our generation can bestow upon the future.

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S. Jay Olshansky is a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.