At UF roundtable, Nelson explores improving lives of elderly
Published: Monday, February 18, 2013 at 9:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 at 9:52 p.m.
With U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson at the helm of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the Florida Democrat is prioritizing Medicare — both improving access to it and preventing fraud in its name.
"We have a very aggressive agenda," said Nelson, at a roundtable discussion Monday with leaders from the University of Florida's Institute on Aging. Nelson was on a fact-finding tour to hear from some of his state's best scientists, doctors and policy-makers on a wide array of issues affecting the elderly.
Monday's discussion focused on looking into how to improve the lives of the aging population, which is significant in Florida. According to recent Census Bureau data, 17.6 percent of the population in Florida was over age 65 in 2011, the most recent estimate. That compares with 13.3 percent nationally and is the highest of any state.
"Florida is an obvious laboratory," Nelson said.
UF's Institute on Aging is spearheading a number of studies that aim to prevent the debilitating effects of processes associated with aging, such as loss of mobility and inflammation.
"If you really want to make a difference, focus on prevention," the institute's director, Dr. Marco Pahor, said at the roundtable. "We focus a lot of our attention on Alzheimer's disease and dementia, but a lot happens before that."
Pahor added that elders who are no longer mobile generally have health care costs that are 40 percent higher than those who are mobile, spending an average of $13,000 a year on health care, compared with the $9,000 their more mobile peers spend.
"In our new health bill, we now have a physical exam for each person who enters Medicare and at the time they enter, (they) receive counseling," Nelson said. "It's at least a point of contact."
Pahor said that while counseling is a starting point, people benefit from taking part in lifestyle-changing intervention studies. He cited one in which two years after the study had ended, the participants receiving the lifestyle-changing interventions were still practicing them.
Pahor is now conducting a study called LIFE (Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders), which is testing physical activity programs in 1,600 sedentary elderly people.
"This is a seminal study," Pahor said, adding that this is one of the few Phase III trials on aging, compared with several on preventing cancer or cardiovascular disease. Phase III trials, the gold standard in medicine, confirm or deny the efficacy of a particular treatment or behavior for the public. Findings of the LIFE study are expected to be published sometime next year.
"What is missing is a strategic plan" at a national level, he added.
But at least in Florida, that might be changing with the establishment, last summer, of another branch of the Institute on Aging in Lake Nona, a town outside of Orlando known for its "Medical City," a huge complex for medical treatment, research and education.
With a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for the new institute, Pahor and his colleagues are now planning for a "pipeline of studies," he said.
"We focus on a very comprehensive approach, from molecules and proteins to small animal studies and studies in humans."
The goal is to identify modifiable risk factors of the debilitating effects of aging and test new compounds that target them. As one example, Pahor cited methotrexate, a commonly used chemotherapy drug that in lower doses has been shown to combat the inflammation behind many aging-related processes including loss of mobility.
Nelson, addressing reporters after the roundtable, said that "tens of billions of dollars" are lost to Medicare fraud. "The committee is going to try to put a stop to that," he said, adding that it would also investigate identity theft of senior citizens.
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.