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Impact of living longer likely to take U.S. by surprise

WASHINGTON – Advancements in medicine and technology are helping people around the world live longer, but many countries, including the United States, are inadequately prepared for the economic and social challenges of a graying society.

Brian K. Kennedy, an internationally renowned expert in the biology of aging, will discuss the global health trend on Aug. 24 at the UNM Continuing Education Center in Albuquerque.

Kennedy is the first lecturer in the Albuquerque International Association’s new six-part series addressing health-care challenges around the globe.

“Obamacare is just the beginning of a very long process to reform health care in the United States,” said Marina Oborotova, president of the association. “Because of that, it is very important to understand and perhaps to learn from other health-care systems around the world.”

Kennedy, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, Calif., told the Journal his lecture will focus in part on global demographic changes, especially the effects of aging populations.

“We’re looking at a future with 25 percent of the population over 65,” Kennedy said. “I’m going to talk about what that is going to mean economically and socially and use that as a means to set the stage to describe how we’re doing health care currently and what needs to change.”

Kennedy, whose pioneering research has helped establish scientific proof that aging can be slowed, said that in countries around the world, workers are retiring faster than young people can replace them, creating potential labor shortages.

Meanwhile, people are living longer but are often not healthy enough to work. Health-care systems do little to prevent illness and focus on treating it instead, Kennedy said.

“We don’t really do health care; we do sick care,” Kennedy said. “The retirement age is going to go up – it has to – but it’s not going to help much if everyone is unhealthy and can’t work.”

Kennedy also lamented what he perceives as little national commitment to the field of aging research. He noted that many forms of illness, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease, are often tied directly to aging, yet aging itself receives much less research funding.

“Aging is the biggest risk factor for almost every disease the NIH (National Institutes of Health) cares about, but it spends just 0.9 percent of its budget on aging,” he said.

Kennedy noted that life expectancy in the United States ranks 50th among all nations.

“Life expectancy in the U.S. is terrible,” he said. “Part of the reason is we have so many people who are uninsured and not getting any health care. We’re paying 2½ times more than any other country for health care, and we’re 50th in life expectancy, so something is broken.”

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