A group of scientists recently gathered in California to discuss what they view as a global catastrophe. The aged will soon vastly outnumber the young, declared the group, which met at the behest of Lifestar Institute. But their vulnerability to age-related diseases will create a double-whammy for the economy: It will take productive folks out of the workplace, while at the same time taxing our already over-burdened health care system.
Few would argue with this theory. But the group’s plan for solving the problem might raise some eyebrows. They are calling for governments and life-sciences companies to fund three initiatives: Educating the public about how lifestyle choices can extend life; developing medicines to combat aging; and inventing regenerative technologies–i.e. stem cell therapies–for restoring parts of the body that decay with age.
I definitely applaud the first idea on their list. As I write in Selling the Fountain of Youth and in a previous post here, making good diet and exercise choices seems to extend life. Of course, getting people to eat well and exercise is not so easy–most people would rather be able to pop a pill to gain the same benefits.
Which brings us to the second idea–and one that’s a bit more questionable. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration doesn’t recognize aging as a disease. So pharmaceutical companies are much more likely to develop products to address diseases of aging–such as cancer and diabetes–rather than trying to prove those drugs actually fend off old age. Judging from a paper they published in the July 14 issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine, LifeStar and its panel of scientists believe this should change. They argue the industry should make medicines that repair and prevent the ravages of age. But without the support of regulators, their idea is unlikely to gain much traction.
As for regenerative medicine, it has a long way to go. Stem cell research is booming, especially in states like California, where it’s fueled by $3 billion in funding. But the day when we’ll be able to grow, say, a replacement kidney from a patient’s own stem cells is still the stuff of science fiction. So for now, we’ll just have to settle for organizations like LifeStar promoting the fantasy.