Decoding the aging process through science, technology
Stanford Center on Longevity wants to use science, technology to create extended, robust life spans
Time marches on, but we may better understand — and consequently alter — its rhythm soon.
Dedicated to no less than using science and technology to alter the course of human aging, the Stanford Center on Longevity has no lack of ambition.
Led by Director Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., the Fairleigh Dickinson Jr. professor in public policy and professor of psychology, the three-year-old Center was created to generate new findings to help people 50 and older, and then effectively and efficiently implement these ideas by reaching beyond the borders of the University.
Why is there a need for a center on Longevity? As Carstensen told a recent conference, median life expectancy (defined as the age to which one-half of a cohort of infants born in a given year can expect to reach or exceed) in the United States has risen from around 20 before the year 1800 to about 77 presently.
“But the bulk of these increases have come about because fewer youngsters died by the age of 5,” Carstensen said.
In contrast, the human life span — the longest amount of time any human being can hope to stay alive — hasn’t changed at all. That limit is imposed not by the environment but by inner biological forces that are only now beginning to be understood.
But though that limit hasn’t moved, more and more people are reaching their golden years, and with a higher quality of life than their predecessors.
“People age 65 or over accounted for four percent of all U.S. residents in 1900,” she said. “They account for 13 percent now and, by 2030, will constitute 22 percent.”
The Center hopes to not only see to it that more people reach age 65 and older, but that they do so in good health. Interestingly, they don’t intend to do so simply by studying the body when it reaches old age. The Center has as many pediatricians involved in their work as they do geriatricians, according to Carstensen.
“One thing that is important about the Center is that we’re not a center on aging, we’re a center on longevity,” she explained.
With a focus on life span, Carstensen said the premise of the Center is that life expectancy will double.
“The majority of people born in this nation and in developed nations around the world who survive those first couple of years [of life] are going to live out their full life spans,” she said. “We want to use science and technology to see if we can improve the course of that life.”
This means the Center and its 20 employees are not focused on one particular area of study.
“In some cases, we are interested in bone development and adolescence, or assistive technologies that would help people remain independent in their home,” Carstensen explained.
Stem cell research is another area the Center is pursuing. Tom Rando, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology and neurological sciences, and deputy director at the Center, is a stem cell biologist working on research on muscle repair and stem cell activation in older tissues.
Carstensen cites Rando’s work as an area that may significantly improve a patient’s life course.
“If you could help the muscles repair effectively, just as effectively when people are older as when they are younger, that is the kind of scientific breakthrough that would be extremely valuable,” she said.
But the Center does more than just research (see box below). Conferences, white papers and corporate links are also part of the mission. For instance, in April, the third annual East-West Alliance Conference was held at Stanford. Co-hosted by the School of Medicine, the conference brought experts on issues including genetic components of longevity, stem cell connections, social correlates, economic factors and the effects of longevity on the medical workforce.
For more information on upcoming events, see the Center’s Web site at http://longevity2.stanford.edu/about/events.
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