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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Curing cancer and eliminating heart disease, those are the holy grails of medical research. But the risk of developing either disease increases with age. And a new study shows that delaying aging would provide the greatest health benefit of all.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Sure, there's a lot of snake oil out there promising the fountain of youth for 39.99 plus shipping and handling. But there have also been a number of reputable scientific studies that have significantly extended the lives of lab animals. Now, there needs to be more focus on turning this laboratory science into treatments for people, says Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

JAY OLSHANSKY: If you can slow the biological process of aging, even a minor slowdown in the rate at which we age yields improvements in virtually every condition of frailty and disability and mortality that we see at later ages.

JAFFE: Olshansky is one of the authors of the study published in the current issue of Health Affairs. It provides statistical evidence that there'd be twice as much bang for the research buck in focusing on delaying aging than in focusing on reducing either of the two major causes of death - cancer and heart disease. In part, that's because there's already been so much progress in preventing and treating those.

DANA GOLDMAN: In some ways, we've become victims of our own success.

JAFFE: Says study co-author Dana Goldman, head of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California. He says there's already been a lot of progress focusing on one disease at a time.

GOLDMAN: And so what that means is, progress in those areas are in some ways harder to get.

JAFFE: But delaying aging could also stave off the other disorders of old age, like Alzheimer's, says Jay Olshansky.

OLSHANSKY: We're not trying to make us live forever, we're not trying to even make us live significantly longer. What we're trying to do is extend the period of healthy life.

JAFFE: The study also looked at the economic impacts of this, says Dana Goldman.

GOLDMAN: What economists are very good at doing is translating health into dollars.

JAFFE: And the study's authors found that having a larger and healthier older population would yield an overall economic benefit of about $7 trillion over 50 years.

GOLDMAN: The health gains are so overwhelming that they make this worth pursuing.

JAFFE: But there would also be social costs to delaying the aging process. People would be on Social Security and Medicare longer than they are now. The study suggests that changes in entitlement programs, such as increasing the eligibility age, would be necessary. One final conundrum of finding a therapy to delay aging is who would get it. Goldman says insurance companies and Medicare tend to pay for treating diseases rather than preventing them.

GOLDMAN: You might end up with a model where the wealthy might be living much longer than people who don't have access to these therapies. And so, the tension on the social fabric is quite tight.

JAFFE: That's a long way off. Currently, there are no treatments that delay aging in people. But recently, Google made headlines when it announced it would invest in Calico, a company that will focus on research into aging and the diseases that go with it. And later this month, the National Institutes of Health will bring together researchers from around the country for a two-day meeting on the science of delayed aging. That's if the federal government is back in business by then. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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