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Longevity as a Commodity

By Sonia Arrison
May 2, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Last week, GlaxoSmithKline announced it will buy Sirtris Pharmaceuticals for US$720 million, giving weight to the claim that antiaging biotech firms can be a good bet. This is good news for Americans, given that a recent Harvard-affiliated study showed that some parts of the country have seen declines in expected longevity.

Longevity as a Commodity

Sirtris, located in Cambridge, Mass., is focused on developing drugs based on resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, in order to fight diabetes and other diseases associated with aging. David Sinclair, a Harvard professor and cofounder of Sirtris, has shown that resveratrol may protect against the effects of bad habits like eating junk food.

In experiments, Sinclair fed mice a high-fat diet and resveratrol. These mice lived as long as the ones on a regular diet, and at least 15 percent longer than their non-dosed, obese peers. Results along this line are encouraging, and may help Americans in pockets around the country where life expectancy took a beating.

Life Expectancy Rate Changes

Life expectancy continues to climb for most Americans (between 1961 and 1999, it rose seven years for men and six years for women), but there are some areas where it has decreased, such as the deep South, along the Mississippi River and in Appalachia, as well as in the southern plains and Texas, according to "The Reversal of Fortunes: Trends in County Mortality and Cross-County Mortality Disparities in the United States," published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

Life expectancy for approximately 4 percent of the male population and 19 percent of the female population either statistically declined or stagnated between 1961 and 1999, reported the study's authors, affiliated with the Harvard Initiative for Global Health. The reasons for the decline involved trends in smoking, high blood pressure and obesity, among others. These findings were consistent with a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report earlier this month that concluded that higher wealth and education levels are correlated with greater life expectancy.

Correlation is not causation, of course, but the same personal qualities that push a person to become better educated and get a better job may be the same ones that determine how well one takes care of one's health. The CBO offered these possibilities for the discrepancy in life expectancy among socioeconomic groups: smoking, obesity, self-management of disease, and healthy life styles and use of healthcare.

Self-management of disease is an important category, particularly given the rise of telemedicine and other in-home products to help maintain better health. "Adherence to medical treatments and therapies is higher among the more educated," said the CBO's report. This realization makes the problem of solving the widening life expectancy gap seem even more difficult.

Measuring Longevity

The "Reversal of Fortunes" study indicates that "public health efforts, be it pricing, access, information or regulatory, should all go hand in hand to reduce factors like obesity and smoking," said its coauthor, Majid Ezzati.

While some may hope for government-sponsored exercise regimes or smoking and junk food bans, the reality is that America is based on individual freedoms. While we may not always like the choices others make, it is essential that we all retain the freedom to choose for ourselves. For some people, this will mean choosing an unhealthy lifestyle they enjoy, thereby forgoing the extra years tacked on the end of life. For others, it will mean choosing to take resveratrol supplements at the times prescribed and living longer.

Human longevity is fast becoming another commodity that economists and policy makers measure. Unlike other commodities, life expectancy depends a good deal on the one and only person who owns it. That is, at least, until new technologies come along to make the extension of life effortless.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.


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