On Healthy Lifespan

Human longevity is now the subject of numerous scientific papers, magazine articles, international conferences, technology fairs, and financial seminars. There seems no consensus on whether it is a ‘good thing’ since some of the consequences of greater population aging are clearly problematic – for example greater dependency ratios: greater imbalance between those requiring support from the state and those contributing to it.

I prefer the phrase ‘healthy lifespan’. Who wouldn’t be in favour of lives lived to the full for longer, with disease deferred to later in life, or avoided entirely? Along with the ability to work (or volunteer) productively well beyond traditional retirement ages? This in place of a slow decline in physical strength, the onset of multiple chronic conditions and a transfer to a full time care setting for the last decades of life.

For most of human history we have viewed aging – loss of function, onset of frailty and ultimate decline into dependency – as a natural part of life. What we are only now coming to terms with, is that with the reduction in infectious disease and other external agents of early death, the numbers in our society living into their seventies and beyond become huge, and unsupportable with our current models of health and social care. And so the focus must move to maximizing healthy lifespan.

Fortunately precision medicine technologies are emerging with the power to contribute substantially to this challenge. Molecular diagnostics can detect early stage disease prior to the development of symptoms. Digital solutions can provide individual guidance and encouragement to develop and meet goals and compete in doing so with others in the same position. We can determine the signatures of cancer and major inflammatory conditions and so give less distressing, more effective treatments earlier in the course of disease.

People increasingly speak of a ‘longevity industry’. Whether this turns out to be a useful term, we shall have to see. But the technologies that help us anticipate disease, intervene in it early and inform treatment choices with much more molecular precision, are clearly going to develop great value – for life science companies and health economies alike.

Professor Richard Barker
Founding Director, New Medicine Partners