skip page navigationOregon State University

Research Newsletter-Spring/Summer 2009


Maintaining Health and Vitality in Older Adults through Research and Education on "Age-Essential" Micronutrients

Tory Hagen, Ph.D.
Healthy Aging Program Director
The Burgess and Elizabeth Jamieson Endowed Chair in Healthspan Research

The "Graying" of America: A Longer Lifespan, but Limited "Healthspan"

Average life expectancy is significantly increasing throughout the world. According to current census data, U.S. citizens live approximately 76 years, which represents a 60% increase in mean lifespan in just the last 100 years. Numerous interrelated factors—better pre- and post-natal care, the antibiotic revolution, improved food supply, and early disease detection—have combined to produce this unprecedented surge in longevity.

Even though mean lifespan has increased dramatically, health may not be keeping pace with advances in longevity. According to a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 40% of Americans over age 65 exhibit at least one chronic disease, disability, or other functional deficit that limits their normal daily activity. For those who are 85 and older or institutionalized in nursing homes, the figure is over 90%. Therefore, lifespan is currently outpacing "healthspan"—the period of a person's life during which they are generally healthy and free from serious or chronic illness.

Seventy-two million Americans will be 65 years old or older in just 25 years, representing one in five Americans. This "age-wave", along with the elevated risk for chronic diseases and loss of health and vitality that disproportionately afflict the elderly, will dramatically affect American society. For example, 77 million baby-boomers will soon be eligible for social security and Medicare. If tax rates stay at current levels, 76% of all federal income tax revenue will go to fund just these two programs by 2050. The graying of America and increased longevity—but limited healthspan—will dramatically change the country.

Current Gerontological Research is Poorly Focused on Increasing Healthspan

Most of the current effort in geriatric medicine is focused on after-the-fact treatments for specific diseases. Even federally funded research is primarily directed towards disease and not to the basic biological mechanisms that comprise the aging process. For example, over half of the current annual budget of the National Institute on Aging is dedicated to research on a single pathology—Alzheimer's disease.

Developing treatments for age-related diseases is an important goal, but the current approach has yielded only minimal advances—some prolongation of life at the cost of good health. The result is a rampant escalation of U.S. healthcare costs, with 75% of all healthcare dollars currently spent on the elderly. These enormous expenses are destined to rise dramatically in the near future if the current research approach remains the same. The marked increase in the population of older adults and their associated poor health urgently require new healthcare strategies to meet the challenges of a massive increase in the geriatric population.

The Healthy Aging Program of the Linus Pauling Institute: Increasing Healthspan

Recognizing the need for a new approach to maintain health and vitality in the elderly, the Linus Pauling Institute has recently established the Healthy Aging Program. This Program is designed to fill an important gap in gerontological research by targeting the causes that make age the leading risk factor for pathologies like atherosclerosis, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. The strategic imperative of LPI's Healthy Aging Program is to move geriatric medicine from reactive and merely palliative care to preventative and protective approaches that prolong health. This health-centered mission is unique among major medical and gerontological programs.

The LPI's Healthy Aging Program emphasizes two areas:

Cellular and molecular "vitality assurance" systems that maintain health with age. Because the basic biology of aging is poorly characterized, there is an urgent need for research that identifies the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the aging process. We want to define age-related changes in the body's stress response systems that fail to adequately respond to xenobiotic, oxidative/nitrative, inflammatory, and pathological insults—all identified as major factors that increase risk for chronic disease and morbidity in older adults.

Dietary regimens that limit the risk for developing age-associated diseases. Diet and lifestyle strongly influence the trajectory of overall health throughout life and represent major ways to modify risk for the pathophysiologies of aging. The Healthy Aging Program seeks to define "age-essential" micronutrients and dietary factors that maintain cellular vitality assurance systems, thereby preventing the decline of health. A significant effort will be placed on defining gene-nutrient interactions that affect these systems and determining the optimal intake of phytochemicals and micronutrients, including vitamins, to maintain health.

Establishing the Linus Pauling Institute Healthy Aging Program

Critical research on the role of micronutrients in limiting age-dependent mitochondrial decay—responsible for declines in energy and organ function—and maintaining the regulation of detoxification genes to protect against cell damage and cancer—is already under way in LPI and serves as the foundation of the Healthy Aging Program. However, we recognize that a more comprehensive research focus is needed than what currently exists. To this end, it is envisioned that at least two additional Principal Investigators whose research focus is aligned with the goals of the Healthy Aging Program should be hired to create the critical mass of research needed to reach our long-term goals. Therefore, one of our initial tasks is to recruit outstanding researchers involved in areas such as neurocognitive function, immunosenescence, or epigenetics who also share the goal of defining how dietary factors help maintain these vitality systems into advanced old age. We envision that the existing expertise, new faculty hires and equipment upgrades that will come with the completion of the new Linus Pauling Science Center in 2011 will produce a unique, world-class center for aging research.

Last updated June 2009