Will America Age Gracefully?

Unless more research dollars go to study aging, expect the new millennium to be the era of the enfeebled elderly.


Edward L. Schneider
How old will you be in 2030? If the answer is, old enough to be eligible for Medicare, then heads up!
Gerontologist Edward L. Schneider predicts that at the current rate of investment into research and prevention of diseases associated with aging, the next millennium will be characterized by millions of poor and frail older Americans.
You could be one of them.
Health care for seniors already costs more than $300 billion annually, says Schneider, who is dean of USC’s Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center and Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Yet the federal government currently spends only about $1 billion a year on research into aging.
“No corporation that spent a mere 0.3 percent of its revenues on research would last long in [the] marketplace,” he says.

As baby boomers continue to gray and average life expectancy continues to soar, the number of Americans over 65 will swell from 35 million in 2000 to 78 million in 2050, Schneider says. According to Census Bureau estimates, by 2050 there will be anywhere from 18 million to 31 million people aged 85 or older.
In a recent Science article, Schneider assessed the future of health, Medicare, housing, transportation and economic status for the elderly. It wasn’t pretty.
Many debilitating conditions affecting older people can be conquered with more research, Schneider believes. If that research gets done, “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,” he says. Without it, Schneider predicts substantial hikes in health-care costs during the first two decades of the next century, followed by even more rapid cost acceleration.
Schneider paints a bleak picture if the pace of aging research doesn’t pick up soon: enormous demands for in-home care, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities; severe strains on the transportation system by large numbers of older disabled people; millions of senior citizens moving below the poverty line; and many rural elderly going entirely without medical care.
Luckily, this grim future isn’t inevitable. “If we invest a reasonable percent of the Medicare budget in research now,” Schneider says, defining reasonable as 2 to 3 percent, “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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