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Alliance for Aging Research Keeps Seniors Healthier Longer

Jennifer Wegerer
By Jennifer WegererSeptember 12, 2013

It’s easy to assume that with aging comes illness–aches, pains, and daily pills are simply part of getting older. But the Alliance for Aging Research believes otherwise. Read this interview with Cynthia Bens, Vice President of Public Policy, to learn more about the innovative and influential work that this organization supports.

Alliance for Aging ResearchThe Alliance for Aging Research, a non-profit organization, advocates for research that keeps people healthier longer. Founded in 1986, the organization has established itself as a respected voice among policymakers. And it’s an influential force in the research community, emphasizing the importance of disease prevention.

A Place for Mom recently spoke with Cynthia Bens about the organization’s achievements and its ongoing mission to bring aging research to the forefront of policymaking.

What separates the Alliance for Aging Research from other advocacy groups?

“Many advocacy groups focus on specific diseases,” Cynthia explains. “The Alliance for Healthy Aging advocates for innovations that promote healthy aging. That means looking at the basic processes that happen as we get older that may predispose us to certain diseases.”

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What are some of your top aging research initiatives and legislative achievements?

1. Improving efficiency in aging research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

As Cynthia describes, “The NIH has 27 institutes, all of which spend money on research without much coordination. We’ve helped establish an interest group on geroscience, which examines the underlying processes of aging that commonly result in disease.” Often, these diseases link back to inflammation, suggesting that if we can prevent inflammation, we can stave off not just one but many diseases.”

2. Getting NIH budget increases for Alzheimer’s research.

“Their budget had been fairly low compared to their focus. And the more budget they have, the more research they can unlock,” Cynthia explains. The increase happened around the same time that the National Alzheimer’s Project Act was passed, which “made our timing good.”

3. Garnering support from the FDA.

Around seven or eight years ago, the Alliance for Aging Research took a closer look at what Cynthia calls the “substantial valley of death” between basic research coming to fruition and the time it takes the pharmaceutical industry to translate it into treatment. To help shorten this span, the organization influenced the reauthorization of the FDA User Fee Program and other programs that give patients a voice in drug development. “Having the patient’s voice involved in drug development is crucial to the process. For example, treatments that extend length of life may be less important to patients than ones that improve quality of life.”

What challenges have you faced in advocating for federal funding for aging research?

“The tough budget environment and partisan divide in the House have made anything related to federal funding a challenge.” Plus, sequestration occurred. Cynthia has found that many representatives support medical innovation and research, but right now the country has more pressing priorities.

Elections present another challenge. The organization often has to educate new House members who haven’t had a lot of experience with NIH or other federal agencies because they don’t have research institutions in their districts. It’s necessary to promote to these members the need for medical research and how important it is to care about the aging population. Cynthia says that this is a subject people often relate to or feel strongly about based on personal experience. That gives the organization’s mission weight with newly-elected members.

What health issues continue to surface in aging research?

Alzheimer’s. “A stigma has surrounded this disease for many reasons. Some families feared taking a loved one out in public after a certain stage of the disease.” But Alzheimer’s is escalating with such prevalence that it’s had a national plan and funding passed for it. So more people are talking about Alzheimer’s care.

Another concern for seniors is long-term care and how to finance it. “Through our efforts, we’re trying to convince people to save for their future because it’s not going to be subsidized by the government. That’s why disease prevention makes such a difference.” The organization initiated its Healthspan Campaign to emphasize the need for research on the basic biology of aging. “Understanding how to stay healthier as we age improves quality of life and saves costs for individuals and the health care system.”

Who are your biggest proponents?

Medical professionals and other advocacy groups. “Surprisingly, the medical field is structured around specific diseases. Only a handful of groups look at cross-cutting research. We’ve built coalitions with organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA), American Diabetes Association (ADA) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) who support aging research as a means toward preventing life-threatening illnesses.”

How has your work made a difference to the lives of seniors?

The work of the Alliance for Aging Research has generated more support and recognition for geriatric education.

It’s also helped create a more supportive environment at the FDA and its acceptance of new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, when it comes to physical frailty and the elderly, it influenced the FDA to consider therapies for muscle decline and loss of function. “Physical limitation is often overlooked as an urgent health need, but it can be the primary reason that a senior moves into assisted living or long-term care.”

What are today’s seniors most concerned about regarding their health?

Based on surveys the Alliance for Aging Research has conducted, seniors are most concerned about staying healthy for as long as they can. They also worry about how they’re going to finance their future. “Seniors generally don’t want to become a burden to their families or lose their independence. We’re doing all we can to focus on ways they can stay healthy, from exercising and losing weight to watching cholesterol levels.”

As Cynthia puts it, the Alliance for Aging Research “doesn’t want to settle for the way things are now but they way they can be. Our goal is to rally the federal funding and research community to make a difference. We hope we can.”

How do you see aging research influencing the lives of seniors? Please share your comments below.

About Alliance for Aging Research ~

The Alliance for Aging Research is the leading non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating the pace of scientific discoveries and their application to vastly improve the universal human experience of aging and health. The Alliance was founded in 1986 in Washington, DC, and has since become a valued advocacy organization and a respected influential voice with policymakers.

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