The good news is that the United States Senate has a Special Committee on Aging. The bad news is that it has little to do with the actual processes of aging and has not meaningfully furthered the research necessary to develop medical treatments for aging itself.
Instead, the committee focuses its work on other issues concerning seniors, including retirement accommodations, robocall fraud, pension plans, prescription drug prices, and the aging workforce. In particular, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a large portion of the committee’s hearing and legislative activity has focused specifically on seniors’ safety in nursing homes and combatting loneliness due to isolation.
While these topics are worthy of attention and do indeed impact the well-being of older Americans, most of the committee’s efforts have little to do with preventing or delaying the onset of the age-related diseases and conditions that will ultimately prevent them from living full, productive lives and will eventually force them into retirement homes that rob them of their savings.
However, to the credit of the Senators sitting on the committee, members do appear to be aware of the connection between aging and disease, the lifestyle factors that impact how we age, and the looming consequences of the Silver Tsunami.
In a 2019 committee hearing titled Promoting Healthy Aging: Living Your Best Life Long Into Your Golden Years, senators and their invited witnesses used several terms and statistics familiar to those of us interested in longevity research.
Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) recognized the relationship between age and chronic disease in her opening testimony when discussing how lifestyle factors impact the longevity of older Americans, noting that “Aging with community means staying engaged, physically, socially, and cognitively. Mounting evidence indicates that this trifecta can help reduce the risk for serious age-related diseases from Alzheimer’s disease to cardiovascular conditions.”
In the same hearing, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, testified about the connection between chronic disease and age along with the severe human and economic consequences of these conditions. He explained to the senators, “Approximately 8 in 10 older adults in the United States have a chronic disease, and 7 in 10 have two or more. Chronic diseases are the leading cause of death and disability and the leading drivers of the nation’s $3.3 trillion in annual health care costs.”
Still, despite the daunting numbers that lay before them and their apparent understanding that age is the key underlying factor in the formation of chronic diseases, the committee’s members have not prioritized advocating for additional appropriations for the department within the National Institute of Aging (NIA) that actually researches the biology of aging.
Instead, the committee’s activities mirror America’s disease-centric approach to medical treatment. This is most apparent in the members’ bipartisan efforts to increase funding specifically for Alzheimer’s research.
“I am delighted that last year, a bipartisan coalition, of which every member on this Committee is a part, worked hard to achieve a $425 million increase in federal funding for Alzheimer’s research — that was the largest increase in our nation’s history […] With our total investment at more than $2 billion for Alzheimer’s this year, we are on a strong path forward, and we are not going to turn back,” Senator Collins said in a hearing titled Alzheimer’s: New Directions in Biomedical Research and Caregiving.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging’s lack of awareness about the importance of understanding the biology of aging in order to fight disease is indeed frustrating and is also emblematic of the broader disconnect on the issue in Congress. But, the fact that a committee with members across the ideological spectrum who appear to have a genuine concern about the human and economic consequences of age-related diseases is actively holding hearings, and is introducing bipartisan legislation, should bring optimism to the longevity community.
What the committee is missing is the right information and sufficient pressure from constituents. With effective grassroots and Capitol Hill outreach, we can begin to fill this knowledge gap and persuade its members to shift their attention toward doing what is necessary to accelerate the development and federal approval of longevity drugs.