Unexcited by Bunsen burners and totally clueless about the Periodic Table, science was by far the subject I was weakest in at school.
Attending a fantastic event on the ‘Science of Ageing’ at the House of Lords earlier this week, I was transported back to GCSE biology classes. But this time, I was hooked.
Organisations like the British Society for Research on Ageing (BSRA) were involved. The BSRA promotes research to understand the causes and effects of the ageing process – so research on the biology of ageing. And going on the evidence presented to me this week, there is fantastic pioneering work taking place.
Some scientists are developing treatments that extend healthy lifespans. There was much talk of the need to “compress morbidity”, in effect reducing the proportion of time any one of us might spend our later lives seriously ill or disabled. A nightmare scenario was also presented to the audience, which would see average life-spans increased, but the period of morbidity increased as well.
It’s going to be hard growing older if these added years are largely spent in-and-out of hospital or doctors’ surgeries. Living for longer sounds great, but how many of us would look forward to our 80s and 90s knowing that, on average, many more of us will live significantly frailer lives?
A drug called Rapamycin was hailed as one of the breakthrough treatments of recent years. It has boosted longevity in mice, apparently the first time “any drug has stretched a mammal’s life span”, according to a glowing piece in Science. In some research publications, it has even been described as an “anti-ageing” drug.
I was left pondering a number issues at the end of the event. Even if we wanted to extend life-spans, what are the costs? Crucially, what are the ethics? The scientists reassured us they weren’t offering immortality. In fact, the goal is something even better: “the chance to spend more of your life contented, useful and interesting to know”.
“A better world for older people is a better world for everyone” was a statement made a few times on the night. It is clearly a sentiment we can all support, but aren’t we in danger of glossing over the deep philosophical questions, not to mention practical questions, such as how drugs that delay the effects of ageing would be made available in a National Health Service facing a £30bn black hole?