Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Senile America: 2050

Biochemist and Brandeis Universtiy professor Gregory Petsko is predicting an epidemic of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in the future. While Dr. Petsko is an expert on the “structural basis for efficient enzymic catalysis of proton and hydride transfer; the role of the metal ions in bridged bimetalloenzyme active sites; and direct visualization of proteins in action by time-resolved protein crystallography”, it is not his professional background that is necessarily making his prediction eminent, he is just looking at the numbers!

Dr. Petsko recently gave an address on TED.com, titled The Coming Neurological Epidemic. In his talk, Dr. Petsko predicted that by 2050, there will a dramatic shift in the number of elderly Americans and that with their extended life will bring a prolonged epidemic of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Of course, it is no one’s fault that people are living longer, healthier lives - that is a miracle of modern medicine. And, no one is talking about “killing grandma” like the haters of Obama’s health care plan derided. This is simply making a logical prediction at what is coming in a reletively short time.

While Dr. Petsko said that they now believe that they have determined the source of Alzheimer’s disease, a protein cell which ultimately looks like “a mangled orgagomy”, his lab is still working on a viable treatment.
But, Professor Petsko is not alone in seeing the coming dirge of old age across all developed continents. According to most recent American census data: 2050 is going to look very different than 2011 does now. In other words, when I turn 74 years old, I might not recognize this country. The U.S. census web site predicts the following:
- The Nation’s population is projected to increase to 392 million by 2050 — more than a 50 percent increase from the 1990 population size.
- The future age structure of the population will be older than it is now. (This is in large part to the number of aging Baby Boomers who will still be sucking air by 2050.)

- According to the middle-series projection, the Black population would increase… over 20 million by 2030. The Black population would double its present size to 62 million by 2050.

- The Hispanic-origin population would be the largest growing group. By 2000, the Hispanic-origin population may increase to 31 million, double its 1990 size by 2015, and quadruple its 1990 size by the middle of the next century.
I am not suggesting that because our country will become more diverse in the future is a bad thing. If anything, I hope that we do have less of a white majority in power (state and private industry by 2050). The United States is behind other countries in Western Europe and Japan which currently have elderly populations. With an elder population comes additional costs for health care. Dr. Petsko is predicting that to treat the number of elderly people, like me by then for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s alone will cost the country a quarter of a trillion dollars a year! If there are things that we can do, at any age to help prevent and offset complications of aging then we owe it to ourselves, our children, grandchildren and the community at large to do so. We sure don’t want to be a burden to the system by mid-century.

There is going to be a serious discussion about the ramifications of better health and longer-life in this country. It is nearly impossible to think that with the advances in science and medicine that we will have better and better ways of treating and even preventing diseases on a genetic level. The hot button question will be: who is responsible for regulating the overall health of our communities and who decides if you are doing enough to prevent disease?

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