The edge of medicine and ageing

In 1900 you had one career and you were lucky to enjoy life after you retired. Now we can have multiple careers. Read more about what David Sinclair thinks about the edge of medicine and ageing

Before the 1990s, old age was an unavoidable fact; like an old car we just wear out. Since then we’ve addressed ageing like a set of fixable parts. When an organ breaks down, we medicate it or replace it. When cancer appears we seek to eradicate it.

David Sinclair, a Professor and Co-Director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging doesn’t want you to think that way. Speaking at a recent Amplify forum, David described ageing as something we can prevent, and in doing so, avoid the diseases that we become more vulnerable to. According to David, when we successfully eradicate cancer, we only extend someone’s lifespan by 2.3 years, because in an ageing body, another organ is nearing expiry.

David sat down to answer some pressing questions after his talk.

You spoke in depth about the health impacts of ageing longer and the aim of ‘squaring the curve’; avoiding a slow decline into ill health. The aim is to spend longer in good health, with a rapid descent close to the end. What collective social impact do you see this having?

It’s going to be a radical change; as radical as going from 1900 until now. In 1900 you had one career and you were lucky to enjoy life after you retired. Now we can have multiple careers. In the future when people live longer and healthier into their nineties and hundreds, they can have twenty different careers in their lifetime. You could, if you don’t like one career, go back to uni a second, third time. It’s almost as though, compared to 1900 you have three different lifetimes.

Does that mean that you need to be the type of person who is predisposed to learning and to being flexible? Is that going to place a demand on us becoming more flexible, agile workers?

For sure. For now, we see the most successful people in our society are those that can adapt and be flexible. Very few people stay in the same career and those that do often don’t do as well.

If you began as a lawyer, you may end up as a surgeon. You may begin as a carpenter and end up as a writer. There’s no reason you can’t change that radically. But those that cannot change and aren’t willing to change will not reap the benefits of the 21st century.

I couldn’t help but think about the idea that we can create a pill for anti-ageing and yet in the developing world we have people who should have access to anti-malaria pills but don’t. So are we going to see further inequality or a new division among people who can afford to take anti-ageing pills and those that can’t? What can we do to democratise healthcare?

All new technologies are first adopted by the wealthier nations and the wealthy individuals in those nations – that’s been true for 100 years. What we see repeatedly is that these technologies become cheaper and cheaper. It’s true for mobile phones, but it’s also true for drugs. Eventually these drugs go off patent and they become in some cases a few cents a day – affordable for people in developing nations. Anti-ageing drugs may start out less affordable but there’s no reason they can’t eventually become a few cents a day.

It’s not rocket science; these are just chemicals to be made. Finding the right chemical and getting it to be approved costs a couple of hundred dollars.

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