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Over 100 participants from across the globe tuned in to discuss healthy ageing in the opening event of Biology Week 2020 last night.

The online discussion, the latest in the RSB’s Policy Lates series, saw a panel of experts discuss how research and policy can help ageing populations remain healthy and happy for longer.

According to the UN, the number of people aged 80 years or over is projected to triple over the next 30 years, from 143 million in 2019 to 426 million in 2050. The UK Government has selected ageing as one of its ‘grand challenges’, with the aim of ensuring that people can enjoy an extra five healthy, independent years of life by 2035.

Healthy ageing speakers

 

The Policy Lates panel (left to right): Dr Richard Siow FRSB, Professor David Llewellyn, Dr Lauren Walker and George MacGinnis

 

The event was chaired by Dr Richard Siow FRSB, director of Ageing Research at King’s College London and advisory board member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity.

Siow began the evening’s discussion by stressing to participants that ageing is not just a late life problem but a fundamental process that begins before birth. “We are all ageing – we started ageing from the time we were conceived. But we can do it better. What can we do now to delay age-related decline?”

David Llewellyn, professor of clinical epidemiology and digital health at the University of Exeter, explained how vast amounts of clinical and public health data can be used to help understand people’s risk of age-related illnesses. He said artificial intelligence and machine learning initiatives like the EDoN project can look for hidden patterns in such data, helping find at risk patients in mid-life “before they pass the tipping point of a disease when they are older”.

Dr Lauren Walker, a clinical lecturer in pharmacology and therapeutics at the University of Liverpool, spoke about her research on polypharmacy, the concurrent use of multiple medications by a patient. Potential problems can arise with the use of medication in people as they age, and the picture becomes more complex where people have multiple morbidities and take multiple medications. In the UK, over 90% of care home residents take more than five drugs.

Walker explained how clinical trials often do not measure the impact of treatments on elderly patients or the impact of taking medications for decades. Reviews of clinical trials have found up to 90% of patients taking a particular drug would have been ineligible for the trials of that drug due to their age or co-morbidities.

She called for support for prescribers working with specific populations, and potentially incentives for drug manufacturers to consider patients with multiple morbidities in trials. “The person sat in front of us may be much more complicated than people in the clinical trials,” she said. “We can’t keep assessing drugs in young healthy men and giving them to people who are not like that.”

Finally George MacGinnis, who leads the UKRI’s £98 million research programme as part of the Government’s Ageing Society Grand Challenge, set out the importance of driving change in many areas of society, not just in biomedical research. Innovation in areas like architecture, transport, technology and education are needed to help people feel included and remain active as they age, he said.

He highlighted how this demographic holds up to 75% of the nations’ wealth, and represents a vast commercial opportunity for local on-the-ground support from small and medium size enterprises.

The panel also took a range of questions on the financial and environmental impact of populations living longer; the impact of COVID-19 on elderly people and ageing research – with many research charities financially affected; diversity and inclusivity in research, policy making and clinical settings; efforts to educate young people and help them make decisions about healthy ageing; and intergenerational fairness.

The panel agreed that, for society to age healthily, collaboration between different communities, sectors and disciplines will be key.

This year our Policy Lates series is supported by the Biochemical Society, British Pharmacological Society, Society for Applied Microbiology, Society for Experimental Biology, and The Physiological Society.

Videos from this event and the RSB’s previous Policy Lates events on Discovery Research and Antimicrobial Resistance are available on the RSB’s YouTube channel.