How We Age and Why We Die

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Aging Research

Optimism on aging research advances tempered by perceptions of major obstacles: increasingly austere funding environment for basic research, bureaucracy, religious opposition, conflicting commercial interests

Scientists say the aging research field is on the threshold of a new way of thinking - shifting focus from specific age-related illnesses to searching to understand aging itself as a biological process, according to a new report prepared by Public Agenda for the Alliance for Aging Research and the American Federation for Aging Research. The report is being presented at the White House Conference on Aging, which begins on Sunday, December 11, 2005.

"The goal is extending the health-span, not just the lifespan. What we are talking about is keeping older people productive longer," a prominent scientist interviewed for the research said. While the scientists interviewed remain interested in specific age-related illnesses, many felt that a better understanding of the aging process may offer cures for many of these diseases and improve the quality of life for many older people.

In the study, The Science of Aging Gracefully: Scientists and the Public Talk about Aging Research, scientists identified three major factors that are driving progress in the field of aging research: research in genetics, development of new technology and integration of knowledge from different fields.

The Science of Aging Gracefully is based on 49 in-depth telephone interviews, conducted by Public Agenda in June and July 2005, with a diverse set of researchers who collectively study all major aspects of aging. In addition to the interviews with scientists, Public Agenda conducted a focus group and a short national, random sample survey of the public in order to gauge their views on aging research. (See below for full methodology.)

"The change in thinking is really what leapt out at me," said Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden. "The aging research field is thinking expansively and putting the disparate pieces together. But the real question is whether our funding system, which silos dollars into specific disease categories, hinders scientists from making the breakthroughs they envision."

"Understanding the aging process - the basic fundamental mechanisms of aging - will help us understand how major geriatric diseases like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions develop and progress," said Stephanie Lederman, Executive Director of the American Federation for Aging Research. "An investment in aging research is ultimately an investment in disease specific research."

"This study highlights the tremendous promise of aging research and the public's understanding of its importance," said Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research. "We need to accelerate support for aging research in order to achieve longer healthier lives for more Americans."

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While scientists voiced strong concerns about the austere funding environment for basic research, a variety of bureaucratic and structural impediments, ethical concerns related to stem cells and other moral issues and conflicting commercial interests, they also see a future of great promise. The areas that scientists believe have the greatest potential for progress include research on stem cells; metabolic functions; links between choices, behaviors and the environment; progress on age-related diseases like Alzheimer's disease; and new pharmaceuticals.

Scientists and the Public: Not as Far Apart As You Might Think

For The Science of Aging Gracefully, Public Agenda asked researchers about their perceptions of the public's understanding of aging research issues. In an effort to either validate or refute these perceptions, the focus group and public survey included questions that paralleled the scientists' perceptions and explored life-span v. health-span issues, the relation of diet and exercise to aging, the role of socioeconomics in health and aging, support for basic biomedical research funding and expectations for quick research results.

The report suggests that many of the scientists' concerns about the public's understanding of these issues emanate from political arguments or media coverage rather than actual public opinion at large. For example, researchers are generally pessimistic about public support for funding for aging research, but the research suggests the public seems to be far more supportive of basic aging research than the official political voices might lead scientists to believe. The public's level of interest also suggests that informal communication networks in families and communities could provide opportunities to cultivate nuanced understanding of topics like health-span and the lifestyle choices that contribute to an individual's ability to live healthier longer.

Funding for The Science of Aging Gracefully was provided by MetLife Foundation with additional support from Atlantic Philanthropies, Ellison Medical Foundation, John A. Hartford Foundation, Pfizer Inc and Retirement Research Foundation.

Methodology: The Science of Aging Gracefully is based on 49 in-depth telephone interviews, conducted by Public Agenda in June and July 2005, with a diverse set of researchers who collectively study all major aspects of aging. A pool of 100 researchers, each a recognized leader in his or her particular field, was assembled via peer nomination, and study participants were selected at random from this list.

The research interview and focus group guides and survey questions were designed by Public Agenda in consultation with the Alliance for Aging Research and the American Federation for Aging Research. All interpretation of the data reflected in this report was conducted by Public Agenda. Questions were written to encourage participants to think broadly about the future of aging research and to explore trends from earlier studies. This portion of the research is qualitative in nature. The findings are suggestive but cannot be generalized to all researchers who are engaged in scientific disciplines in aging-related research.

In addition to the interviews with scientists, Public Agenda conducted a focus group and a short survey to gauge the public's views on aging research. Focus groups allow for an in-depth, qualitative exploration of the dynamics underlying the public's attitudes toward complex issues. Insights from participants in these focus groups were important to the survey design, and actual quotes were drawn from the focus groups to give voice to attitudes captured statistically through the survey. The focus group was moderated by Ana Maria Arumi in Fresno, California.

The survey is based on 1,000 telephone interviews conducted with a national random sample of adults aged 18 and older. The survey was conducted between October 27 and November 3, 2005. The margin of error for the overall sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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