NEW YORK — One of the truly great human accomplishments of the last century has been the revolution in longevity. People in most of the world are living longer, by far, than their forebears. That is an upheaval with profoundly positive economic consequences. But there are also some drastic downsides to the vast expansion in population.
The older that population becomes the more they are hit by the diseases of aging. There are hundreds of these ailments, and they include diabetes, arthritis, cancer (to a large degree) and above all, Alzheimer’s disease, which causes brain cells to cease to function.
Dr. Robert Butler, president and CEO of the International Longevity Center in New York, estimates that more than 4.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. There are similar rates in other developed areas that have been surveyed, including China, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada. As the baby boomers grow older, Butler adds, by the years 2020-2030, the total could be 14 million. The costs, in human and economic terms, he says, could be “devastating.”
Now top policymakers in business as well as government are joining to take some cooperative action against this so-far incurable disease. The newest opponent is probably the most prestigious global business group of all, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which held its annual congress last week.
The World Economic Forum is creating a Council on Aging to cooperatively fight Alzheimer’s. Its first chairman will be Butler, and its initial step, he says, will be to make the public in many countries aware of the size of this spreading worldwide problem. Beyond that, the council will use its scientific know-how to develop treatments for long-term care.
Also, Butler and other scientists believe that more could be done to prevent and control diseases that are thought to make victims vulnerable to them, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Says Butler: “We need to be more effective in our screening for high blood pressure. Most victims don’t even know they have it.”
He calls for governments to adopt policies to help fund research and long-term caregiving so that they would not fall so heavily on individual families and “ in the future we would all share in the costs.”