Preventing the Diseases of Aging

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Dr. Kathy Maupin and Brett Newcomb discuss current research being done that is focused on improving patients’ quality of life and not just lengthening their lifespan, as well as the state of medical care in the US with regards to how diseases of aging are addressed and treated.

Historically, the focus of medicine has always been to treat diseases and to cure patients of emergent problems that put their lives immediately at risk, thereby making the individual healthy enough to live another day. Today, there is a new focus. While it is still important to recognize and treat life-threatening diseases, we are beginning to look at things more holistically. We want to recognize the patterns of symptoms that cause illnesses so that we can prevent them. We want to find the trigger points—the critical intersections in the life of an individual that put him or her on the path to illness and even death. We want to seek or establish treatments and/or behavior modifications that will abolish or avoid the symptoms of chronic diseases that rob us of our quality of life. These questions are now becoming the focus of more and more doctors around the world.

I belong to two groups of doctors who are fighting to identify the causes of the illnesses of aging and find treatments that will prevent, avoid, or significantly delay those illnesses. We want to define aging itself as a disease with its own symptoms by identifying pathways to illness. If we can see the whole algorithm—find the first step that sets us on a path to chronic disease and treat that first step—perhaps we can avoid many, or all of the symptomatic illnesses that make up the second half of Americans’ lives.

Part of the strategy of any societal transformation is to accurately describe the problem and the solution. Words matter when it comes to spurring on a necessary revolution that will improve the lives of everyone in our country. The language we use colors our pathways of thinking, and inspires others to research the paths to a common healthy endpoint. So today in healthcare, we want to change the terminology we use to quantitate success in medicine from a long “life-span” to a long “health-span.” This means everyone must work toward the goal of quality and not quantity for the years that we live. What does it benefit any of us to live to 100 if we don’t know who we are for the last twenty years of our lives? We should not be overly interested in living longer when we are crippled by disease and incapable of living functional and independent lives.

I am interested in maximizing out patients’ health-spans so that we can live longer lives as independent and active contributing members of society. We have many of the answers in the research that exists, and much of it begins with replacing hormones that disappear as we age. The next step is to mold the minds of current physicians and medical school teachers to think in a more preventive fashion, with quality of life and not just quantity of life as the ultimate goal .

In this week’s podcast, we discuss research that is being completed by doctors in various countries who are joining together to provide a complete program of promoting health and preventing diseases of aging. I am proud to say that I am one of them. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a group of researchers who have begun to study a drug that has been known throughout the world to promote health in aging populations. It is a diabetes drug named Metformin and it has been selected for research because it has known preventive attributes, and known side effects. These researchers are embarking on a long-term study in hopes of supporting the theory that this drug is a method of improving the health-span of aging adults. The prevalence of Metformin is a known quantity. There are recognized side effects, and what it does and how it works is well-known. These physicians are using this study to analyze its impact on the health-spans of the individuals that use it.

Some of the problems that one encounters in this kind of research involve economic realities and governmental priorities. There are always other agendas and other power-centers that must be dealt with. By using a gender-neutral drug that is well-tolerated and inexpensive, they are providing research with a new goal—health and not just longevity. You have to start somewhere and these folks are battling the “old guard” of the medical community as well as a government that does not value long-term health and prevention appropriately. It is an uphill battle. But, one day doctors will look back and judge the system that is in place currently as archaic and inhumane—providing excellent care for the young with immediate results in mind, and very little care to improve the quality of life for aging adults. I find that the longer I am in medicine the more I realize that our current system is a large leviathan that will be slow to change. It will take many of us fighting these old ideas to set a course to a distant land of quality medicine and prevention of disease.

Watch our podcast to discover more about the importance of and the possibilities for developing a longer health-span in your life.