The Growing Cost of Aging

With the election looming, we’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about healthcare. Rising costs, limited access, reforming Medicare…the list goes on and on.  Whatever happens on November 6, it seems the American public has already spoken. According to new research just unveiled at the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting, the cost of lifestyle drugs now exceeds the cost for medications used to treat chronic disease.

The research suggests that medicines used to treat conditions considered a normal part of aging, including those related to hormone replacement therapy, sexual dysfunction, menopause, aging skin, hair loss and mental alertness, are becoming so popular that they now rank third.  Only diabetes and high cholesterol have a greater cost impact among commercially insured patients.

Researchers at Express Scripts in St. Louis looked at trends in prescriptions filled for aging medications.  In 2011 alone, the cost per person for aging medications ($73.30) was 16% greater than the amount spent on both high blood pressure and heart disease medications ($62.80).  The cost for diabetes medications was $81.12 and high cholesterol medications was $78.38.

The research found that among these insured individuals use of drugs to treat the physical impact associated with normal aging was up 18.5% and costs increased nearly 46% from 2006 to 2011. Increased use of these drugs was even more pronounced for the Medicare population (age 65+), up 32% from 2007 to 2011. The largest utilization jump among Medicare beneficiaries was from 2010 to 2011, up more than 13% and outpacing increases in the use of drugs for diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure combined.

At a time when people are forgoing care due to rising health costs, this study reveals a growing trend on where the public is placing its healthcare dollars,” said Reethi Iyengar, PhD, researcher at Express Scripts.  “Continued monitoring and potential management may be warranted for this category of medications.”

While there is no doubt that pharmaceutical advances and greater awareness have improved the quality of life for many aging Americans what was not known, until now, is the significant cost associated with treating these conditions. Couple that with the proliferation of people living longer and it’s clear that managing the trend and spend from treating conditions associated with aging will become increasingly important.

The United States is in the midst of a profound demographic change, with the number of elderly people projected to reach nearly 20% of the entire population by 2030, up from less than 13% in 2009. This increase will continue to drive both use and costs of medications to treat the natural conditions of aging.

But the problem may be even bigger. The greatest growth in cost per insured was seen among the 45 to 54 age group – up almost 21% over the last five-years. And because the study only analyzed prescription medications it may have underestimated the total costs of aging treatments, which include a variety of over-the-counter medications, cosmetic treatments and surgery.

Seems getting old hurts not only our bodies, but our wallets and the economy too.

What Are Your Telomeres Telling You?

When it comes to the science of aging, there are few discoveries as intriguing as telomeres.  These caps at the ends of chromosomes protect genes from being eroded each time a cell divides. When telomeres are finally eaten away after many years, cells begin to show signs of aging. This process is thought to be a key part of what makes us grow old.

 Telomeres’ partner in crime is the enzyme telomerase, which helps keep telomeres long and healthy, a property that’s made it the subject of almost science-fictional fascination.  Telomerase confers immortality on cancer cells and has even been shown to reverse aging in telomerase –deficient rats.

Now, in a move that brings these questions into sharper focus for the general public, Telome Health, founded by Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine for her work in this area, has announced that it will bring to market a test for telomere length.

The company already provides such a test for research use, but according to its website it will release a test for the general public this fall

News of the test’s release has spurred a flurry of misleading reports suggesting that we’re on the cusp of being able to learn how long we’ll live — and whether we can ward off the irksome outward signs of aging.

While scientists are divided over the value of the test for individuals, no serious researchers are saying a telomere test will be some kind of crystal ball. However, if people can monitor their telomere length, perhaps they can make lifestyle changes to alter that risk by boosting their cells’ longevity.

SRxA’s Word on Health is asking its readers: Would you take the test?  Let us know.

Exercise Keeps You Young

Duh, not exactly the sort of groundbreaking news you’ve come to expect from SRxA’s Word on Health.  However, before you click away from our humble blog, today we’re asking and answering the question “Just how young?”

Well, how about no gray hair, lots of energy, superior muscle mass and brain volume, and that’s just for starters.

At least that’s the case in mice. According to Canadian researchers when mice, who were genetically programmed to age quickly, exercised regularly starting at 3 months old for five month,s they aged dramatically differently than the mice who were sedentary. Those poor inactive mice were balding and frail, while the super-mice who ran the equivalent of a human 10K (6 miles), three times a week starting at age 20, were lean, muscular and youthful. They did not have the expected age-related shrinkage of their brains, hearts, muscles, skin, hair, ovaries, testicles, spleen, kidneys, and liver.

They were even were able to balance on narrow rods…though why a mouse would want to do that is beyond us!

The explanation for these incredible findings appears to be in the mitochondria. Aging in humans cause mitochondria to malfunction and die making you  look older. Additionally, anything that reduces the number or efficiency of mitochondria interferes with your body’s ability to burn fat and sugar for energy.  As a result, blood sugar, fat and cholesterol levels rise and you gain weight.

Exercise however, increases the number and size of mitochondria in your cells .

No doubt, the fact that their gonads were healthy made the students working with researcher, Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, very, very impressed (and quite possibly, training for their first marathon).

We’d love to tell you more, but we too are going out for a run!