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Need More U.S. Workers? Quadruple the NIH Budget

A study out this week correlates declining U.S. death rates over the past half-century with federal funding for biomedical research—and argues that more money is needed so the longer-lived elderly can help meet the future demand for U.S. workers.

Although it seems obvious that the billions of dollars poured into the National Institutes of Health have improved health and saved lives, not many studies have rigorously examined the relationship. In this week's online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Duke University demographer Kenneth Manton and colleagues compared death rates from 1950 to 2004 for four big killers—heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes—with the rising budgets of their corresponding NIH institutes. For all but diabetes deaths, which have risen recently because of rising rates of obesity, they found an inverse correlation between budgets and age-adjusted death rates 10 years later. And when they plotted the total NIH budget versus overall mortality rates (see graph), they found an "excellent" regression fit. The researchers estimate that from 1950 to 2004, some 35 million deaths were avoided thanks to NIH. That's a sizable number compared to the 131 million deaths in that period.

The kicker is that the researchers link their results to a projected slowdown in the growth of the U.S. labor force. To offset this by keeping people healthy and working longer, they write, "the size of NIH expenditures relative to GDP should quadruple to about 1% (~ $120 billion) and be done sufficiently rapidly (10 years)."

Credit: K. Manton et al., PNAS Early Edition (2009)