Dr Richard Siow talks COVID-19, its implications for Longevity, and how AI can play a role.
Scientists across the world are scrambling in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and researchers in the Longevity field are no exception. We spoke to one leading authority on aging as he, himself, recovered from suffering symptoms consistent with coronavirus.
“So I can speak about COVID-19 from a personal perspective,” says Dr Richard Siow, director of Aging Research at King’s (ARK), a multidisciplinary consortium of researchers working on aging at King’s College London.
Longevity.Technology: Siow, a speaker on Monday and Wednesday at the Longevity2020 online conference later this month, tells us that the experience took a much greater toll than he expected. In addition to the potential long term impact on his lungs, he is also concerned about its effect on his rheumatoid arthritis, a condition for which he has been taking immunosuppressives.
“My immune system is diminished by design, unfortunately, so maybe that impacted on the severity of the of the symptoms, the length of recovery,” he says. “I did stop taking the immunosuppressives for the two weeks to try and recover, so I’ve had also an increase in my arthritis symptoms. So you can see that there are consequences for my Longevity by having an underlying health condition.”
Siow’s research focus is in cardiovascular aging within the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence at King’s, and he reveals that he is ready to refocus his work in the context of the pandemic.
“My interest now is to align my research background and the longevity consequences of COVID-19 and see how my research might be able to mitigate and prevent some of these long term impacts on health and wellness and also future infections,” he says. “We can’t go through another healthcare crisis, so what can we do now to enhance our resilience, especially in the elderly population and those with pre-existing conditions, to reduce the severity of the symptoms and hence improve longevity?”
“We can’t go through another healthcare crisis, so what can we do now to enhance our resilience, especially in the elderly population and those with pre-existing conditions, to reduce the severity of the symptoms and hence improve longevity?”
Siow points out that it’s not just about the immediate firefighting and the symptoms, but the long term consequences for the majority of us who will make a full recovery.
“How full is that recovery?” he asks. “What is the knock-on effect for future infections – not only coronavirus infections, but anything else that we might get? And will this predispose us to other age-related conditions – heart disease, dementia and so on? Will there be more underlying health conditions because of the virus, and what we need to do to take care of these comorbidities?”
Of course, the impact of COVID-19 goes beyond disease, and Siow is conscious that we need to consider the wider social and economic impact of the virus.
“There are going to be wide-ranging long-term mental and physical health issues, because we’re home a lot more,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s all bad necessarily – it could even improve physical activity with people becoming more exercise conscious. It goes both ways.”
Siow is interested in the idea of taking a more personalised approach to prevention, and this is one of the goals of the Longevity AI Consortium, a King’s College initiative that brings together academic and industry partners to target aging at a personal level.
“Many of the AI initiatives at the moment are in the healthcare setting, but what we are proposing is at the consumer level and how we can collect data from people who are well in order to maintain health and wellness,” he says. “It’s so much more difficult to define health and wellness in the community compared with disease because it’s so diverse – your health and wellness is very different from mine.”
“Many of the AI initiatives at the moment are in the healthcare setting, but what we are proposing is at the consumer level and how we can collect data from people who are well in order to maintain health and wellness.”
Siow wants to look at biomarkers of health and wellness in order to gain a better understanding of interventions, including lifestyle changes, diet, nutraceuticals and beyond.
Achieving that requires collection of robust, validated data and this is not easy, as demonstrated by the global response to coronavirus.
“One of the reasons why we cannot trust the COVID-19 statistics at the moment is that different countries or even different regions within a country are collecting different statistics based on availability of testing,” say Siow. “The same goes for data collection for AI analytics – you need robust, joined-up data collection and maybe this has to be repurposed or designed for each age group. That’s why we established the Longevity AI Consortium, where we can work with industry to better validate these apps and technologies, so we don’t run the risk of misinforming people.”
While AI health apps are already widely in use, the challenge is that there isn’t a standard way of measuring or reporting data in a way that is beneficial to society as a whole.
“They’re collecting the same thing in different ways, so effectively, they’re collecting different things,” says Siow. “So we can, hopefully, find a better way of validating AI technologies for longevity. Both AI and longevity are very grey areas – so how can get a handle on both these areas in the context of consumer health rather than clinical health?”
Some of his academic colleagues have been critical of his broad approach to aging, but Siow is convinced that, far from being unfocused, it is necessary to understand the bigger picture in order to solve the problem.
“That’s why I established Aging Research at King’s, which is right across the whole university, from our business school and the financial impact on longevity, through to clinical delivery, mental health, oral health, nursing, care in the community and the social impact of aging,” he says. “Even our theologians are involved – looking at our perspective of end of life and what happens afterwards and how that relates to our longevity. And how we can get metrics on all that through AI is something that I’m very keen to explore.”
What happens after end-of-life? Fascinating work from Richard and his colleagues.