Photo of older woman eating an apple

A push to aid healthy aging

Harvard Medical School’s Inouye outlines Grand Challenge contest to fund innovations in field

Originally published at the Harvard Gazette

The world’s aging population means there will be an increasing number of older and sicker people at a time when declining fertility will saddle a smaller working population with the burden of supporting them. One solution is to keep people healthier longer, living independently, and contributing to society. In pursuit of that goal, the National Academy of Medicine is mounting a $30 million Grand Challenge contest to foster innovation in science, medicine, public policy, the workplace, and elsewhere. Sharon Inouye, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and head of the Aging Brain Center at Harvard-affiliated Hebrew Senior Life, is a National Academy member and a member of the planning committee for the Grand Challenge for Healthy Longevity. She spoke to the Gazette about the contest and how she hopes it changes the nature of aging in the decades to come.

GAZETTE: Why is aging a priority now?

SHARON INOUYE: The population is shifting in the United States and around the world. Up until the early 1900s, America’s population pyramid had a very broad bottom — lots of young people — and a very narrow top, with older people a relatively small proportion of the population. Now, that pyramid looks more like a rectangle. By 2030, we’re going to have the same number of people under the age of 5 as over 65, with the most rapidly growing part over 80. That’s a huge inversion, and the reason is not only longer lifespans, but also fewer births. That is happening around the globe — at different speeds in different countries. It means there will not be enough young people in the workforce to support adults who are age 65, 70, and older, no longer contributing to the economy.

“Medicine is very focused on swooping in once diseases are diagnosed — and we do amazing things to keep people alive — but I think it sacrifices preventing conditions.”

— Sharon Inouye

GAZETTE: And we’re not just older, but sicker?

SHARON INOUYE: That’s correct. People used to die younger from acute conditions like heart attack, stroke, cancers, infections, accidents, so forth. We’ve gotten better and better at treating those acute conditions so people are developing chronic conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative conditions. They’re living a long time with heart failure, lung failure, kidney failure. People now live a long time chronically ill; they get more and more disabled, and need a lot of health care services.

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