Last November saw the launch of The Longevity Forum, with an event at the Wellcome Collection, London. It was a day full of great speakers, a large and engaged audience and above all a palpable buzz as new ideas were shared and new contacts made.
Introducing The Longevity Forum
The Longevity Forum was launched by myself and Juvenesence investor Jim Mellon. We each have different perspectives on the issue of longevity. Jim is most interested in the scientific research around ageing and how that can support longevity going forward. My main focus is on the social science – how we restructure life, work, education and the economy.
Having met at various events held overseas we both felt there was a need to introduce into the UK greater awareness and debate about these issues. There is of course plenty of good work already being done in the UK around ageing. For instance, both the Centre for Ageing Better and the ILC spearhead a number of crucial initiatives as well as doing an excellent job of raising awareness. However, longevity isn’t just about ageing. Its ultimately about all of life not just later life. The Longevity Forum seeks to draw attention to that with a positive agenda focusing on the overall life course. Making the most of longer lives will also require input from both science as well as behavioural change and that dual focus underpins The Longevity Forum.
At the heart of The Longevity Forum is the need for a positive agenda around change. Whether it is the astonishing advances that future scientific research hint at or the substantial gains in healthy life expectancy already achieved, society needs to adjust in order to achieve the potential gains. Engaging with a wider community of organisations who may not be interested in ageing and are unaware of the potential benefits from longevity is therefore final component of what The Longevity Forum is about.
That’s how on November 5th we found ourselves at the Wellcome Collection with a range of speakers covering a host of topics (click here for a link to the presentations). Stanford psychologist Professor Laura Carstensen (director of the Stanford Center on Longevity) started the day with her compelling insights on the need for a New Map of Life. Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and Mike West, CEO of AgeX Therapeutics discussed the general philosophy as well as specific details of the new research agenda around ageing and the potential treatments currently in development. A completely different perspective on how to live forever was supplied by Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org,. He emphasised, in his characteristically wise and inspiring way, the importance of intergenerational connectivity and how to utilise the ‘only natural resource in the world that continues to grow’ – older people. Panel discussions on the likely pace and success of the scientific research in this area, the policy agenda required to support healthier longer lives as well as what constitutes a good life rounded off the day.
The audience was drawn from policy, corporates, the financial sector, universities and the not for profit sector. They were a mixture of experts in particular areas through to those with little or no knowledge of the topic. The invitation list was designed to maximise the chances of meeting someone new with a different expertise or interest.
The mix of perspectives and the inclusion of both those who are familiar with the space and those new to it led to a real openness and enthusiasm in discussions. The breaks were characterised by a raucous din I rarely hear at events. I knew we must have done something right when Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane wrote to me afterwards and said “I learned more from the sessions than at any conference I have attended in the past few years.”
In this relatively short essay it is impossible to cover the breadth and detail of the discussions during the day or to explain why Lord Adair Turner waving his oyster card in the air made for such a good debate. In what follows I will instead focus on some of the overarching themes that emerged from the day for me.
Firstly, underpinning every session was the idea that age is malleable. At an individual level we know that exercise and good nutrition makes us age more healthily. Laura Carstensen also provided plenty of evidence how our broader social behaviours influence how we age. For instance, the impact of education on the incidence of functional limitations was striking.
Whilst the social scientists stressed the role of our behaviours and environment in making age malleable the scientists were about understanding this process biologically and attempting to pinpoint the pathways. Identifying these, and finding ways of acting on them, opens up a new route to make age malleable, possibly to a degree previously unimagined.
If ageing is malleable then it is hard to think of a more important policy perspective than supporting longevity at all ages, both medically and socially. This also offers a more positive narrative to the usual dismal talk of an ageing society. The ageing society narrative focuses on the fact that across the world we are seeing an increase in the proportion of older people. What gets much less attention is how we are ageing is changing. Policy aimed at making the most of this malleability is of first order importance.
The second main take away for me is that given the malleability of age we have already discovered over the past 100 years, let alone what may happen in the future, society has to adjust. UK life expectancy has risen 36 years since the introduction of a pension in 1908 but retirement age has barely changed. However, it isn’t just about retirement. The whole life course needs to shift and with that we need a shift in education, health care, finances and every other aspect of life.
If how we age is malleable, then we need to make time and what we do with it malleable. That in turn requires us to show a degree of malleability in our habits and life course that is currently constrained by a host of institutions, policies and social norms.
Same issues, differing optimism
By and large the scientists were optimistic and positive. They differed amongst themselves around the scale of results achievable but there was a substantial confidence that progress would be made (albeit that the ageing sceptics weren’t in attendance). In contrast, on the policy and behavioural side optimism was more restrained. The required changes cover such a broad range of issues (i.e education, employment, ageism) and individual habits and social norms are so deeply ingrained that it is clear that change will be gradual and complex.
Interestingly both groups share a similar challenge and perspective. Key to the recent research shift amongst the scientists is to understand ageing as a system wide issue of the body. Those focusing on social issues are also focusing on system wide adjustments but at a society wide level. However, it is this system wide approach which makes the topic so challenging for both groups. Just as the scientist need to identify the key path ways the social scientists need to identify how to shift the system. As Lord David Willetts, one of the panellists on the day, remarked to me “what are the policy levers for change?” The systematic nature of longevity issues makes it hard to grab hold of single levers to achieve better outcomes.
Medical research in the past made little progress in understanding ageing as it focused on separate silos of cancer, heart disease etc. Similarly governments currently separate out policies to do with education, health, work and pensions. Just as the scientific research is now trying to produce a unified theory of ageing perhaps governments should establish a Minister of Longevity aimed at a similarly inclusive approach to thinking about the life course and supporting longer healthier productive lives.
A Minister of Longevity could help overcome a siloed policy approach, address this recent longevity slowdown (around which there is surprisingly little discussion) and play a critical role in tackling the problems of an ageing society and opening up the gains to a longevity economy.
The broad background and interests of those attending the event created plenty of opportunities for mixing of ideas and learning. Plenty of those on the science side showed a real interest in the behavioural and policy issues their work would contribute to. Conversely many on the social science seemed fascinating by the scientific attempts at tackling ageing and the gains that had been made and might happen in the near future.
There were those on the science side who felt that technology was destiny and as a result many of the concerns on the behavioural side were misplaced given the strides that scientific research would make around healthy ageing. Similarly there were those on the behavioural side who were deeply sceptical, occasionally even hostile, of what the scientific agenda would deliver.
On balance, I would say the scientists seemed more open to the innovations on the behavioural side than the reverse. Given the breadth and complexity of the longevity agenda, differences of opinion are inevitable and I think welcome. I hope though that we can overcome C.P. Snow’s world of two cultures in thinking about how we promote longevity. Ensuring we live long and healthy fulfilled lives will involve behavioural change, the support of new technologies and scientific progress. The scope for senolytics, for instance, to help alleviate arthritis is an exciting prospect. So to is thinking about how to recast the life course to make learning a life long activity, to increase intergenerational connectivity and to extend our working careers in meaningful and purposeful ways.
Plans are already underway for our 2019 event which we hope will be even better – this was after all an inaugural event. As always our focus will be on a positive agenda around all of life, bringing together the science and the social science, ensuring a varied and eclectic audience and getting longevity experts to mix amongst themselves but also with those with the power to make change happen but who have little current interest in the topic.
The longevity agenda is a curious mix. This is a topic that will see gradual change over the decades to come. However, we are also living through a time when both the science and the behavioural agenda is opening up rapidly. It will be interesting to see by the time of the 2019 event how that balance between new developments and persistent problems will have evolved. How much progress will there be to report? How much will we be talking about the same problems? I am optimistic that there will be increasing signs of progress on a variety of measures. This seems to be an issue that society is finally beginning to wake up to.
The Longevity Forum 2019 will be held in the first week of November. Hold the date and keep a watch for further announcements. If you would like to attend or help The Longevity Forum then please email email@example.com.
Andrew Scott is Professor of Economics at London Business School, author of The 100 Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity (with Lynda Gratton) and co-founder of The Longevity Forum.