Matt Ridley on recent developments in the search for ways to ameliorate the effects of aging:
Squeezed between falling birth rates and better healthcare, the world population is getting rapidly older. Learning how to deal with that is one of the great challenges of this century. The World Health Organisation has just produced a report on the implications of an ageing population, which — inadvertently — reveals a dismal fatalism we share about the illnesses of old age: that they will always be inevitable.
This could soon be wrong. A new book, The Telomerase Revolution, published in America this week by the doctor and medical researcher Michael Fossel, argues that we now understand enough about the fundamental cause of ageing to be confident that we will eventually be able to reverse it. This would mean curing diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and osteoporosis, rather than coping with them or treating their symptoms.
Let me show you what I mean about fatalism. The WHO report on ageing and health, for all its talk of the need for “profound changes” to health care for the elderly, actually urges us to stop trying to cure the afflictions of old age and learn to live with them: “The societal response to population ageing will require a transformation of health systems that moves away from disease-based curative models and towards the provision of older-person-centred and integrated care.”
Yet it also subscribes to the somewhat magical hope that illnesses of old age can be “prevented or delayed by engaging in healthy behaviours” and that “physical activity and good nutrition can have powerful benefits for health and wellbeing.” This is largely wishful thinking. There is no evidence that, say, Alzheimer’s can be prevented by a certain diet or activity. A lack of activity and poor nutrition can worsen health at any age, but the underlying chronic diseases of old age are caused by age itself.
When I asked Dr Fossel what he thought of the WHO report, he replied: “In 1950 we could have talked (and did) about ‘active polio’ in the sense of keeping polio victims active rather than giving up, but the very phrase itself implies that one has already given up. I would prefer that we cure the fundamental problem. Why talk about ‘active ageing’, ‘successful ageing’, and ‘healthy ageing’ when we could talk about not ageing?”