Report Describes Issues, Future of Research into Aging, Alzheimer's
Although it's five years old, the report “The Science of Aging Gracefully: Scientists and the Public Talk about Aging Research” (which was prepared for The Alliance for Aging Research and The American Federation for Aging Research by Public Agenda), provides some interesting views about aging (including some about Alzheimer’s) as well as a look into the future of aging research. The report used qualitative interviews with 49 leaders in aging research. In addition, researchers learned the public’s perspective through a focus group and short survey.
So what is the perspective of those leading scientists who are researching aging issues? “Scientists are increasingly looking at the underlying mechanisms of aging – how we age and why we die. We are gaining a better understanding of the science of aging and are learning how to delay the onset of age-related diseases, reducing years of costly dependence on medical and long-term care facilities and decreasing the load on an already strained healthcare system,” the report’s authors wrote. Although the scientists still were interested in specific age-related illnesses (such as Alzheimer’s and dementia), they think that having a better understanding of the aging process may prove fruitful in finding cures for these diseases as well as quality of life. The scientists described three major factors that are resulting in progress sin the field of aging research. These factors are:
- Research in genetics. “Some people may have a genetic make-up that provides a protection against these age-related diseases, while others may be genetically predisposed to develop them. Understanding the genetic differences between these individuals allows scientists to develop protective strategies and potential cures for the diseases.”
- New technology developments. These technologies let scientists analyze large bodies of information, especially in relation to gene sequencing. In addition, researchers believe that new imaging technologies will be particularly beneficial in understanding Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
- Integration of knowledge from different fields. “Many aging researchers feel breakthroughs will come from a more holistic view of the field,” the study’s authors wrote. In addition, some scientists believe that collaboration between geneticists and social scientists will lead to valuable discoveries.
The scientists also were asked to predict what would happen up to 20 years in the future. They focused on the following:
- Stem cells, which “can potentially yield human cells for testing new pharmaceutical and biological interventions against specific diseases of aging,” the authors wrote.
- Metabolic function, such as calorie restriction.
- Choices, behaviors and environment. “The impact of diet and exercise on aging and susceptibility to age-related diseases is being stressed by researchers. They are increasingly studying the effect of insulin levels, increased body fat, cholesterol and other changes seen with aging on the development of diseases and conditions,” the authors wrote. In addition, some scientists are focusing on disparities in health and longevity among different demographic groups while others are interested in looking at nutritional supplements.
- Progress with age-related diseases. “Several of the scientists were very encouraged by the progress that has already been made in understanding Alzheimer’s disease. Great promise has been seen, for example, in understanding factors in the brain that are beneficial in the young but become toxic with age,” the report’s authors wrote.
- Interest in the power of pharmaceuticals to help advance treatment of age-related diseases. Some scientists predicted that there will be “tailored medicine” in which specific drugs are developed for specific diseases and individuals.
The scientists also identified obstacles to research, which included the following:
- Lack of support for basic science. “Many scientists in the field of aging research feel that focusing on an understanding of the process of aging itself – and an effort to answer some of the major unanswered questions about why humans age – holds the most promise. This relatively new attitude represents a primary interest in basic science and a shift away from specific disease-related research,” the report’s authors said.
- Commercial perspectives. “The researchers also see a gap between the needs of the field and the available support from pharmaceutical corporations,” the study’s authors said.
- Bureaucratic obstacles to interdisciplinary research. For instance, researchers were critical of higher education institutions for their focus on increased specialization as well as the academic evaluation system.
- Ideological and cultural issues. These issues include restrictions on stem cell research, a growing emphasis on individual rights and the rights of animals that hamper research, and public attitudes about aging.
Next week, I’ll write about how public opinion compares with the scientists’ perceptions. Stay tuned!