Widening Gap in U.S. Life Expectancy

Map of life expectancies

Caption: Life expectancy at birth by county, 2014. Life expectancy into 80s (blue), 70s (green, yellow, orange), 60s (red).

Americans are living longer than ever before, thanks in large part to NIH-supported research. But a new, heavily publicized study shows that recent gains in longevity aren’t being enjoyed equally in all corners of the United States. In fact, depending on where you live in this great country, life expectancy can vary more than 20 years—a surprisingly wide gap that has widened significantly in recent decades.

Researchers attribute this disturbing gap to a variety of social and economic influences, as well as differences in modifiable behavioral and lifestyle factors, such as obesity, inactivity, and tobacco use. The findings serve as a sobering reminder that, despite the considerable progress made possible by biomedical science, more research is needed to figure out better ways of addressing health disparities and improving life expectancy for all Americans.

In the new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a research team, partially funded by NIH, found that the average American baby born in 2014 can expect to live to about age 79 [1]. That’s up from a national average of about 73 in 1980 and around 68 in 1950. However, babies born in 2014 in remote Oglala Lakota County, SD, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, can expect to live only about 66 years. That’s in stark contrast to a child born about 400 miles away in Summit County, CO, where life expectancy at birth now exceeds age 86.

Continue reading

Happy New Year: Looking Back at 2016 Research Highlights

Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2016Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.

Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support:

Continue reading

Creative Minds: A New Chemistry for Aging Research?

Tony Wyss-Coray

Tony Wyss-Coray / Credit: Stanford School of Medicine

Basic scientists have long studied aging by looking inside of cells. While this research has produced many important leads, they are now starting to look outside the cell for the wealth of biochemical clues contained in the bloodstream.

To introduce you to this exciting frontier in aging research, this blog highlighted a while back the work of Tony Wyss-Coray at Stanford School of Medicine, Palo Alto, CA. He and a colleague had just received a 2013 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to explore the effects of exercise on the brains of mice. Their work, in fact, produced one of Science Magazine’s Breakthrough Discoveries of 2014. Their team showed that by fusing the circulatory systems of old and young mice to create a shared blood supply, the young blood triggered new muscle and neural connections in the older mice, while also improving their memories.

As fascinating as this theoretical Fountain of Youth was, Wyss-Coray recognized a critical limitation. He had no way of knowing how factors secreted by the young mouse could actually cross the blood-brain barrier and rejuvenate neurons. To solve this unknown, Wyss-Coray recently received a 2015 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award to build a potentially game-changing tool to track the aging process in mice.

Continue reading

Revisiting Resveratrol’s Health Claims

Photo of red wine and dark chocolate

Credit: Jill George, NIH

Over the past decade or so, a lot of us have been led to believe that certain indulgences—such as a glass of Pinot noir or a piece of dark chocolate—can actually be health-promoting. That’s because a number of studies had suggested that red wine, chocolate, and other foods containing the antioxidant resveratrol might lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other age-related maladies. But now comes word that a diet rich in resveratrol may not automatically translate into better health.

Continue reading

Creative Minds: Path to Longevity May Start With … Bats and Mole Rats!

Images of the animals and DNA

Caption: DNA studies are unraveling the secrets of these mammals (clockwise from top left): naked mole rat, bowhead whale, and Brandt’s bat.
Credit: Clockwise from top left: Smithsonian’s National Zoo; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Vadim Gladyshev; National Human Genome Genome Research Institute, NIH

It started simply, with the analysis of a trace element in proteins. It led, through recognizing and following provocative patterns, to one of humanity’s greatest questions: what is the secret to a long life?

This intriguing scientific path, traveled by NIH Pioneer Awardee Vadim Gladyshev, has brought together an assortment of mammals, great and small. It has relied upon a veritable global treasure-hunt, with samples from Russian caves, East African tunnels, and Arctic oceans. It was Gladyshev’s scientific acumen that mapped this path. And it is comparative genomic analysis that provided the vehicle he has used to travel along it – right up to the threshold of new insights into healthier, longer life.

Continue reading