Beyond the lab bench: five important moments this year that reflect wider concepts of longevity.
Longevity, increasing both the human lifespan and the time spent in good health – healthspan – is a topic of significant scientific and societal interest. Advances in medicine and healthcare have already led to increased lifespans in many parts of the world, but there is still much room for improvement.
Making longevity a reality has the potential to address numerous societal challenges, such as an aging population and the burden of chronic diseases. It will also lead to economic benefits – individuals who live longer will have more time to contribute to the workforce and the economy – and improved quality of life. Embedding preventative medicine through advanced diagnostics, screening and shifts in healthcare infrastructure is a crucial as biomedical research and 2022 has seen some blue sky thinking that will bring about significant benefits for individuals, society as a whole and the very concept of longevity.
Here are some of the programmes, decisions and viewpoints that have impressed us this year.
Heed the call: millions urged to sign up for health of the nation study
Three million letters dropped on British doormats this autumn inviting members of the public to join Our Future Health, a major new health research programme designed to help develop new ways to prevent, detect and treat diseases.
Eventually up to five million people will have the opportunity to join Our Future Health over the next few years, which will make it the UK’s largest ever health research programme open to all UK adults.
By analysing health data and blood samples from millions of volunteers who join the programme, researchers are hoping to unlock new ways to detect diseases earlier, when they can be treated more easily, and more accurately predict who is at higher risk of diseases such as dementia, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Insilico’s Alex Zhavoronkov announces Longevity Pledge – and calls for others to do the same
Founder and CEO of Insilico Medicine Alex Zhavoronkov used the platform of this year’s Aging Research and Drug Discovery meeting to announce his Longevity Pledge – his commitment to use his wealth and resources, as well as all of his remaining time, to support and develop research and clinical solutions for extending healthy productive longevity for everyone on the planet.
“Making productive longevity, or the ability to live a longer, healthier life, is the most altruistic cause you can support,” said Zhavoronkov. “If we could extend everyone’s life by just one more high-quality, healthy year, our world would benefit from roughly 8 billion more impactful years in a few generations. These years could mean thousands of new medical and scientific discoveries, impactful action on climate change, and more. This is no time to waste.”
Zhavoronkov followed up by publicly calling for the world’s most successful founders, altruistic billionaires and dedicated longevity pioneers to join him in his unorthodox and principled Longevity Pledge, adding that he believes this will accelerate significant breakthroughs for human longevity from approaching release in 20+ years to broadly available in 5 years.
Is digital identity the next longevity?
MIT Media Lab has created a platform called Augmented Eternity that uses granular patterns and data clusters to predict the reasoning of an individual. The upshot is that software agents could become our digital heirs, helping our thoughts, opinions and values live on – longevity on a digital level.
Most of us leave pretty hefty digital footprints behind as we travel though life; these all contribute to our digital persona, and because it’s in data form, it can be analysed, retained and interrogated.
MIT Media Lab says: “We believe that by enabling our digital identity to perpetuate, we can significantly contribute to global expertise and enable a new form of an intergenerational collective intelligence.”
New collaboration plans to transform healthy aging research
Longevity research is often focused on one pathway, one molecule or one hallmark of aging. Indeed, previous reviews of how to boost healthy aging research in the UK have found research efforts to be fragmented, focusing on single aspects of aging, rather than a cohesive strategy for healthy aging. Recognising the need to improve research in this vital area, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC) combined their investment power to the tune of £2 million to create the UK Ageing Networks, the result being researchers at 28 UK universities coming together to create 11 new networks that are set to tackle healthy aging as a wider concept.
The creation of these new interdisciplinary research networks have brought researchers and stakeholders from different disciplines together to widen the longevity knowledge base and by facilitating the development of new research approaches, the UK Ageing Networks will accelerate our understanding of healthy aging and longevity and produce new and effective solutions for an aging population.
Coordinated at a macro-level by Professors Lynne Cox and Richard Faragher, the networks will significantly increase collaboration with key stakeholders. They aim to translate findings into future policy, public health and new therapies by working alongside the public, industry partners, charities, policymakers and healthcare practicioners.
Ukraine crisis risks decades of medical advancement
2022 headlines have been dominated by the crisis in Ukraine, and Russia’s invasion of its neighbour has ramifications that will ripple far into the future, especially when it comes to healthspan and lifespan research.
Ukraine is a vital hub for medical research, biotechs and start-ups, but as a result of the invasion, numerous clinical trials have been put on hold and the futures of vital therapies placed in jeopardy. Medical research is years in the making and trials meticulously designed, but all this effort could now be wasted. As novel research is stymied and clinical needs unmet, the scientific toll is incalculable. Human lives, years from now will be cut short because potential therapies are not sufficiently advanced and certain longevity breakthroughs never happened.
This invasion not only risking millions of Ukrainian lives, but untold lives globally, so we were glad to carry an opinion piece by Sergey Jakimov, CEO of the Latvian investment group LongeVC, which specialises in curating, facilitating and executing early-stage venture investments in the fields of biotech and longevity, in which he detailed the risk.
The demographics used in research are often based on historical data and research conducted in a clinical setting is often done on small sample sizes or patient populations which are likely to be different from the general population in terms of age, race, sex and health status.
Sampling bias (certain groups may be more or less likely to participate in a study), or groups being overrepresented or underrepresented in studies for other reasons can distort results and lead to conclusions that are not generalizable, but longevity is about extending lifespan and healthspan for everyone, so it is worth drawing attention to two things that happened this year.
In June, The American Heart Association improved its Life’s Essential checklist to Life’s Essential 8. The cardiovascular health of the US population is suboptimal, and the AHA has pointed out important differences across age and sociodemographic groups. Analyses like this can help policy makers, communities, clinicians and the public to understand the opportunities to intervene to improve and maintain optimal cardiovascular health throughout life, as well as feeding into data for personalised medicine.
By continually refining the Life’s Essential checklist (the latest version adds healthy sleep as essential for ideal heart and brain health) and examining data by sociodemographic, age, race and sex factors, the AHA is helping lower the risk for heart disease, stroke and other major health problems for all Americans.
In October of this year, Columbia University published the first nationally-representative study of cognitive impairment prevalence in more than 20 years. As well as demonstrating that one in 10 older Americans has dementia, by using data that reflected the nation, the researchers could show that people with dementia and mild cognitive impairment are more likely to be older, have lower levels of education and to be Black or Hispanic.
“Dementia research in general has largely focused on college-educated people who are racialized as white,” says Jennifer J Manly, PhD, the study’s lead author and professor of neuropsychology in neurology. “This study is representative of the population of older adults and includes groups that have been historically excluded from dementia research but are at higher risk of developing cognitive impairment because of structural racism and income inequality. If we’re interested in increasing brain health equity in later life, we need to know where we stand now and where to direct our resources.”