Feb. 9, 1999 Unless more resources are devoted to research and prevention of the diseases of aging, the next millennium will be characterized by millions of poor and frail older Americans, a respected University of Southern California gerontologist says in the journal Science of Friday, Feb. 5.
"The issue that will most affect the quality of life for tomorrow's older population is their future health requirements," says Edward L. Schneider, M.D., dean of USC's Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, who notes that health care for seniors already accounts for a third of the more than one trillion dollars spent on health annually. In contrast, the federal government currently spends about a billion dollars a year on aging research.
"No corporation that spent a mere 0.3% of its revenues on research would last long in a competitive marketplace," Dr. Schneider says.
Aging baby boomers and continuing increases in life expectancy will swell the number of Americans aged 65 or older to 35 million in 2000 and 78 million in 2050, he says. Middle estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau project about 18 million people who will be 85 or older by 2050, but many demographers believe the bureau's higher projections of 31 million very old Americans are more likely to come true.
Schneider, formerly deputy director of the National Institute on Aging, examines the future of health, Medicare, housing, transportation and economic status for the elderly using two scenarios. In the first scenario, investment in aging research increases to appropriate levels; while in the second, current low levels of aging research support are maintained.
Schneider believes that many debilitating conditions affecting older people can be conquered with more research so that "the average health of a future 85-year-old in the year 2040 resembles that of a current 70-year-old with relatively modest needs for acute and long-term care."
Schneider says "a quantum increase in research on chronic diseases is necessary before we can make a dent in the projected growth of health-care costs related to an aging population." Without it, he predicts substantial increases in health-care costs during the first two decades of the next century, followed by even more rapid cost acceleration.
Schneider, who holds USC's William and Sylvia Kugel Dean's Chair in Gerontology, says there could be enormous demands for home health care, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, as well as severe strains on the transportation system by large numbers of older disabled people.
"In rural areas, it may be impossible to provide necessary services to large numbers of frail older Americans," he says. "In urban areas, needs for transportation services may overwhelm existing resources."
He says the economic status of seniors won't change substantially under the increased-research scenario, but "could result in many millions of older Americans moving below the poverty line" under the inadequate research scenario.
"The health of an aging population will not only directly affect [seniors'] future health-care costs, but it will also have enormous consequences for their economic, housing and transportation needs," he says. "If we invest a reasonable percent of the Medicare budget in research now (2% or 3%), we could save future generations from the physical, sociological and economic scourges of aging with the dire consequences of millions of ailing and impoverished elders."
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