Why you should care

Because the search for eternal youth is eternal. 

Youth is wasted on the young, they say, and as most of us age, we accept wrinkles and memory lapses as the inevitable price of living longer. Not Dr. Brian Kennedy. The president and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, a nonprofit research center in Novato, California, says science already has shown encouraging signs of slowing aging — and the often devastating chronic diseases associated with it: cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, to name a few.

His own research investigates whether regulating a molecular pathway involved in longevity, called the TOR pathway, can treat age-related diseases. Kennedy also educates the public on advances in aging research and its goal to “extend healthspan, not just lifespan,” he says, so we can spend old age “playing golf on the weekends,” not frail and bedridden.

Dr. Brian Kennedy

Dr. Brian Kennedy.

But Kennedy, 48, acknowledges that aging research raises its own set of concerns, from affordability and access to priority setting, especially given the infant mortality, malnutrition and other health problems plaguing the developing world. His edited conversation with OZY follows.

OZY:

How long can we expect people to live in 10, 20 or 50 years? Is immortality a possibility?

Dr. Brian Kennedy:

Over the last 20 years or so, life expectancy has already been going up. That’s been due to taking care of things like water access, child mortality, food security. With aging research, there’s really a potential to continue. Most of the world suffers from age-related diseases — cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes. If we can slow aging, we can reduce or delay the onset of all of these diseases.

What can be achieved? I don’t think anyone really knows. Already we can give a mouse a clinically approved drug and it slows aging by 25 percent. If we can accomplish that same goal in humans, we would increase life expectancy by 15 or 20 years. As for immortality, I think we’re entering the realm of wild speculation. I prefer to remain agnostic.

OZY:

How much should we be focusing on reversing aging when we also face infant mortality and the infectious diseases that often affect developing countries?

B.K.:

I’m not going to argue with anybody who wants to put efforts into improving living conditions and health care for people in developing countries. But 65 percent of the global health care burden is due to chronic diseases of aging, and I don’t think anybody would say we should be ignoring that. That’s a big number. What we’re doing is picking one disease at a time — cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes. We’re ignoring the fact that the biggest driver behind all of these is aging.

OZY:

How might anti-aging treatments affect the health care system?

B.K.:

It may be that a lot of interventions are not going to be reimbursed by insurance for a while and will probably be accessible to people with money first. I wish that wasn’t the case. But that’s how new medicines typically work. If you look at the development of drugs for HIV, initially wealthy people had access, and we’re still trying to get access to people in the developing world.

OZY:

How can we ensure equal access to anti-aging treatments?

B.K.:

It takes advocacy. We need to convince the public that we’re not just trying to keep rich people alive, but to keep everybody healthy. I also think that we need to do a good job interfacing with everyone from general practitioners who don’t often understand our research to regulatory people who might find it hard to accept giving healthy people drugs to prevent diseases of aging.

OZY:

How will an aging population affect society and policy?

B.K.:

We talk about the aging population as the silver tsunami. The reason we have this negative view is that people think negatively about aging. But I think it can be a very positive thing if we can figure out how to keep older people healthier, so health care costs are lower and quality of life better. Instead of you taking care of your parents, your parents are taking care of your kids. You have older people who are still volunteering, or maybe still working.

OZY:

What about the economic effects?

B.K.:

We spend the vast majority of our health care costs on people in the last few years of their life. We’ve got a huge need for medical providers. We’ve got extremely high costs for health care services, and we’re not going to have enough young people working to pay for the costs of the older population. We have to meet that new challenge and the way to do that is to keep elderly people healthy. It’s not just drugs — it’s also lifestyle changes.

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