TR: You have often pointed out that even in the research world, there is great confusion over the meaning of the term “aging.” What is the confusion?
LH: The facts are these. There are four aspects to the finitude of life: aging, longevity determination, age-associated diseases, and death. Aging is what we call a catabolic process–the breakdown of molecules. Longevity determination is the reverse–the repair or maintenance of molecules. Aging gets confused with longevity determination. The aging process increases vulnerability to age-associated diseases. These concepts are distinguishable from each other and fundamentally different.
TR: Why is it so important to distinguish between aging and the diseases of aging?
LH: You cannot learn about the fundamental biology of aging by studying disease processes. Resolving age-associated diseases tells us nothing about the fundamental biology of aging, just as the resolution of childhood diseases, such as polio and childhood anemia, did not tell us one iota about childhood development.
TR: Why, then, is it important to do research on the fundamental processes of aging?
LH: Because the fundamental processes of aging increase vulnerability to all age-associated diseases. That is why cancer, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, the three leading causes of death in developed countries, occur in older age. The root cause of age-associated diseases implies–demands, even–that for anyone to understand the causes of age-associated diseases, they should know something about the fundamental processes of aging. Learning something about why old cells are more vulnerable to pathology is a key question for which we have little research being conducted.
TR: Really? Little research is being conducted in this area?
LH: Essentially, less than 3 percent of the budget of the National Institute on Aging, the key source of major funding in this country for research on aging, is spent on studying the fundamental biology of aging–and that’s a liberal estimate. Over 50 percent of its budget is devoted to Alzheimer’s-disease research. I am not arguing that we stop research on Alzheimer’s. I’m simply pointing out the fact that there is an enormous difference between research on aging and age-related diseases. If you cured Alzheimer’s tomorrow, it would add about three weeks on to the average life expectancy in this country.
TR: Would focusing more funding on research on the fundamental process of aging bring a greater return on the investment?