Despite the graying of the Boomers, one medical specialty you don’t hear much about is geriatrics. In fact, there are only about 7,500 geriatricians in the U.S. – 9,000, if you include geriatric psychiatrists. It’s considered a minor specialty when you figure there are over 815,000 practicing physicians in the country. So why aren’t we tripping over geriatricians like we are pediatricians? Because the specialists who see the elderly focus on the diseases associated with aging, not with aging itself. Cardiology, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, orthopedics, and the list continues.
Mayo’s Kogod Center on Aging turns that concept on its head. The more than 100 researchers in the Center focus on “successful aging” or the idea that growing old does not need to mean contracting illness or disease. As Center director James Kirkland, M.D., Ph.D., put it to me the other day, “Aging is the number one risk factor for disease.” Notice the subtle difference there – there’s an increased risk for illness, but that’s all. It’s correlative, not necessarily causative. Starting at the cellular level, they want to find what causes degeneration and slow or stop it.
Next weekend, (June 17th-20th) the Kogod Center is sponsoring its first annual international aging conference, bringing together clinicians who see elderly patients and basic researchers who are discovering why people become frail as they age. I use the word frail in a general sense, to cover a multitude of situations. Experts from the UK, The Netherlands and all over the U.S. are converging as presenters and participants in the three-day event. It’s closed to the media because scientists will be discussing findings yet to be published, however I will be blogging from the conference to offer a flavor of what’s happening and some reflections on where the science is headed. The significant thing is that it is happening. These groups -- which don’t usually communicate much, according to Dr. Kirkland -- will be interacting, comparing notes. And that, as Rick said, could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Is science on the verge of being able to stop or slow the aging process? More on that next time.