Age-related Issues. One of “Society’s Wicked Problems”?

Investment in research on aging and longevity has become a significant segment of the overall longevity economy over the last decade. Largely evidenced by looking at the growing list of university or college entities around the world, which are engaged in a high degree of collaborative research – millions of dollars invested, producing several well developed studies, reports and conferences over this same decade, with gerontologists, scientists, technologists and yes – entrepreneurs and financiers, all with a stake in the game.

Over these same years, I have kept up with all of this on a monthly basis. Yet thousands of people within a highly identified global aging population have no idea that any of this activity exists. What everyday people at any age do see and hear more about is the other part of the aging and longevity economy dialogue – such as health care, elder care, older adult housing, age friendly community design and later life financial planning.

As I have commented in previous blog posts, should you want to know if there is a future in research in a longevity society, just follow the money. And to prove the point one more time, this month another under the radar news story in the research investment category emerged, in where else but the USA.

The USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology announced that a new centre will open, dedicated to research on longevity and healthy aging. Called the Ney Center for Healthspan Science, it is to be funded with a $20 million donation from Mei-Lee Ney, a prominent member on USC Board of Councilors and president of a well-known US Investment, Asset Management consulting firm. Follow the money. This will add to the list of ten institutes and centres already operating under the Leonard Davis banner that focus on aging and longevity matters.

How will the research work under this initiative be any different from all the other institutes and research labs, not just those at Leonard Davis, but others around the world? Others, to name three for example, the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in the US, the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging (MIRA) in Canada or the Newcastle University Institute for Ageing in the UK. As the press release says – “School leaders envision the center as a hub of multidisciplinary exploration into the biological, demographic and psychosocial aspects of aging.”

This statement resonates with many of those frequently made by other institutes. This is all good as long as the affluence behind the work, both of money and intelligence, eventually filters down to serve everyday people with meaningful, affordable public programs, products and services in now time. What spoils it, at least for me, is when with all their good intentions, research narratives imbued with the language of worry or woe, are wrapped-up in over the top phrases.

Once again, this very type of thing occurs in the Leonard Davis release, where it states that the university “encourages researchers and scholars across the university to share their expertise and ideas on addressing aging-related issues as one of society’s wicked problems.” Mercy, why do you have to say this? Dig into the USC Provost page under the Key Initiatives page and there they are – the four wicked problems of our time. “Ensuring Lifespan Health” is one of them.

Who is to argue that there are no challenges and opportunities for all generations, to adapt to change in response to the serious real needs of aging populations in a longevity society? This reality is not to be under-appreciated or disregarded. But just as how other overworked, prickly threat phrases like “silver tsunami” never really help attract positive attention to the cause, I never in my naive mind would have framed the desire to “ensure lifespan health” as being wicked.

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