Touching on food, environment and population, the Longevity Forum tackles new ground as sustainability takes centre stage.
This year’s Longevity Forum took a bold step outside of the traditional remit of aging focused events to look at how longevity relates to other areas of challenge in our society. From the fringes of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, discussions at the forum ranged from food production and the health of the planet to global population issues and the fertility crisis.
Longevity.Technology: While work conducted in the longevity field undoubtedly relates to everyone on the plant, it can sometimes feel like the sector is isolated to a bubble of those “in the know”. The Longevity Forum is committed to changing that, and we caught up with co-founders Dafina Grapci-Penney, Prof Andrew Scott, and Jim Mellon to find out how this year’s Longevity Forum sought to include a wider audience.
Each year, the Longevity Forum aims to explore the role that scientific innovation, technology, businesses and policy can play to influence positive outcomes for individuals and society, and Grapci-Penney explains that this year’s focus on sustainability really connected with participants.
“We’re always trying to push the boundaries of what longevity is and how the subject matter is treated,” she says. “Rather than being a niche silo, we aim to spread the message outside of the community that is already interested in it, and promote longevity more as a horizontal, systemic, issue. You really can’t separate longevity from the food system, the environment, the financial system, or from the demographic trends in our society.”
Longevity and sustainability
Opening the forum, Professor Scott drew attention to some of the areas where longevity and sustainability overlap.
“For instance, key to longevity is healthy life, and healthy life is going to be affected by rising temperatures and the quality of the air we breathe, let alone any existential threats to humanity because of global warming,” he said, while also highlighting some points where the two areas are thought to conflict.
“A topic I often hear when it comes to sustainability and longevity is that the world is overpopulated and this is putting too much pressure on our resources, and the notion of people living longer, and longer still, is then seen as overpopulating the planet even more.”
Scott himself assembled one of the day’s panels to explore whether overpopulation is really as big a problem as we think, especially when taking into account factors such as the rapidly falling fertility and birth rates in many countries.
“None of us are going to live forever, and what everyone in this industry is trying to do is to compress the period of morbidity towards the end of life,” says Mellon, raising a key concern around falling birth rates. “But there’s still bound to be a period of sickness towards the end, and if there are fewer younger people around, then who’s going to look after the aging population?”
Check out the full discussion on population pressures.
Longevity and food
The first panel at Wednesday’s forum was curated by Mellon and focused on food. The Juvenescence chairman brought together panellists including The Lancet’s Cassandra Coburn, whose book Enough seeks to address how to provide a growing population with a healthy diet from sustainable food systems, and Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon Restaurants, who led the development of the UK’s National Food Strategy in 2020.
“There’s a clear link between what we are encouraged to eat, which often involves a lot of sugar and salt, and human longevity,” says Mellon. “There’s a huge life expectancy difference between people who eat a lot of highly processed food, which is really bad for you, and then the people who don’t eat highly processed food all the time, who live a lot longer.”
Check out the full discussion on the need for agricultural revolution.
“Henry Dimbleby was very pleased that we set up this event because in the blue zone at COP26 they were not really discussing food to this extent,” adds Grapci-Penney. “Food is really the original industry, and if you think about the environment and population and how we live longer, happier, and healthier, food is really one of the essentials – securing the supply chains, making sure that we’re not destroying the environment and so forth.”
Longevity and societal change
Lancet Healthy Longevity editor Coburn joined forces with her colleague Alastair Brown of The Lancet Planetary Health, to convene a panel entitled “No Healthy Longevity Without A Healthy Planet.” Coburn focused the panel’s attention on two “huge challenges” facing society:
“One we know a lot about – environmental change that we know is going to make it increasingly harder for human beings to survive and thrive. The other challenge facing humanity is that our population is aging – there are now more people over the age of 65 than there are under the age of five – so what we’re looking at now is a complete change in how population is structured.
“While older people are more vulnerable in terms of healthcare needs and temperature changes, you could also argue that older people hold a disproportionate amount of wealth and power, and are frequently characterised by a reluctance to change the status quo. So are we looking at intergenerational strife and conflict, and how are we going to resolve this, when you consider that we need to act as a unified society to solve the problems we’re facing?”
Longevity Person of the Year
The final part of this year’s Longevity Forum saw British scientist, inventor and centenarian James Lovelock given the honour of Longevity Person of the Year.
Lovelock is perhaps best known for the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that the Earth functions as a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.
“James is a remarkable individual, and he had some really interesting things to say,” says Mellon. “He’s 102 years old, and he’s still as lucid as the day he was born, he’s incredible. His speech was uplifting – he’s led a long, fulfilled and healthy life, and that’s the aspiration of everyone in the longevity industry, so he’s a remarkable inspiration.”
Check out Lovelock’s full acceptance speech.