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How Universities Drive Innovation in Aging

Their case studies improve health in the face of longevity

By Pinchas Cohen, M.D.

(This essay is the third in the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging series, The Business of Aging, running on Next Avenue each Friday over the next few months. The essays are a companion piece to the center’s new report,  Silver to Gold: The Business of Aging.)

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Aging is big business.

A growing demand for everything from comfortable shoes to on-call caregivers prompted a New York Times headline to declare baby boomers as the hottest start-up market in 2016.

In fact, the sum of all economic activity devoted to serving the needs of more than 110 million Americans over age 50 now exceeds $7.6 trillion, a staggering amount that surpasses the total gross domestic product of any nation except the U.S. and China, according to an AARP/Oxford Economics report.

As we consider the drivers of the new longevity economy — what AARP describes as a powerful force of people, products and services that are changing the face of America — it is important to acknowledge the crucial roles that universities play in fostering this entrepreneurial enterprise that recognizes aging as an age of opportunity.

From Labs to Lives

From Google to Gatorade, many successful businesses began on college campuses.

We can thank university researchers for developing many of the treatments, techniques and technologies that emerged during the 20 century and contributed to the increase in life expectancy — from around age 50 in 1900 to around age 80 today — that has been called one of society’s greatest achievements. These include insulin for managing diabetes, chemotherapies for fighting cancers, antibiotics for attacking infections, vaccines for eradicating deadly diseases and numerous other scientific and medical innovations.

Until recently the Food and Drug Administration only approved interventions to address specific diseases. Recent efforts by collaborators of our school (University of Southern California) resulted in a green light for the first-of-its-kind TAME (Targeting Aging with MEtformin) study, which could lead the way to treatments for aging itself — the most important and most common risk factor for many of the socially and economically important diseases we face.

Beyond medications, scientists here at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and elsewhere are looking at how lifestyle changes, from specific exercises to specialized diets, can promote healthy aging. Some have launched companies providing health and wellness products based on promising research results.

Improving Healthspans

In the 21 century, the challenge for researchers and industry is to focus not just on lifespans — how long we live — but also on healthspans, or how well we live. Continued university breakthroughs help to advance many new consumer technologies with the potential to make lives easier for older adults, such as self-driving cars, robotic assistants and digital apps for health monitoring and assessment.


Through collaborations with universities, industries serving older adults are gaining specialized training and insights designed to increase awareness of aging issues and promote best practices. The USC Leonard Davis School has developed specialized curricula focused on the needs of older adults for professionals in the financial, wellness and housing sectors.

Examples of education-focused, aging-inspired businesses abound. University-based retirement communities, a growing trend in the senior living sector, allow older adults to remain engaged by taking college classes. Social entrepreneurship organizations like harness the skills and experience of older adults to inspire — and teach — younger generations. These intergenerational interactions provide benefits for students and seniors alike.

A Personal Approach to Aging

In the area of biotechnology, a market predicted to exceed $600 billion by 2020, we are now moving into the what I call the precision longevity era — one where we can leverage DNA and other biomarkers to better understand each person’s ability to healthfully age to his or her full potential. Propelled by sequencing advances and discoveries taking place in university research labs, this personalized approach to aging will undoubtedly inspire countless initiatives based on tailored treatment and prevention efforts.

Current companies like 23andMe may be just the tip of the iceberg. Forbes recently published a pronouncement that hyper-personalization is about to disrupt the health, fitness and beauty industries. In the area of nutrition alone, scientists, including several here at the USC Leonard Davis School, are uncovering links between genotypes and the ability of specific diets to provide resistance to aging’s maladies.

The Most Valuable Asset

As increased life expectancy and a new generation of older adults demand we redefine how later life is lived, it can be said that people are perhaps a university’s most important export. Our graduates have gone on to start businesses, shape policy, practice medicine, develop technologies, lead research and serve older Americans with a focus on making lives better for all of us.

Individuals from institutions of higher education are spurring aging-related advances and providing case studies for how to improve health and well-being today and far into the future.

And that may be the most important bottom line of all.

Pinchas Cohen, M.D.
Pinchas Cohen, M.D. Dr. Pinchas Cohen is dean of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, executive director of the Ethel Percy Andrus Geronotology Center and William and Sylvia Kugel Dean's Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California. Read More
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