Nobel laureates urge governments to promote active ageing and embrace 100-Year Life idea

(From left) Nobel Media chief scientific officer Adam Smith and Nobel laureates Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, Sir Dr Angus Deaton, Dr Tasuku Honjo, Dr Tim Hunt and Dr Randy Schekman. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

YOKOHAMA - Nobel laureates and experts, in a clarion call on Sunday (March 17), urged governments to promote active ageing to ease the burden on social security systems.

This goes beyond simply raising the retirement age, they said, but also ensuring quality jobs for the elderly who wish to work. Those who wish to retire should be urged to continue contributing to society and to stay socially active, which can ensure a high quality of life.

But old age may also cause medical problems, the experts told the fourth Nobel Prize Dialogue Tokyo themed The Age To Come. This means societies built around the 100-Year Life concept - the expectation that people will live to a century - can be hotbeds for medical and technological innovation.

The conference on Sunday, held in Yokohama in the Greater Tokyo area, was attended by more than 1,000 scientists, economists, policymakers and students.

Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel for medicine in 2009 for discovering telomeres in DNA strands that - like shoelaces that get frayed - are worn down and lead to ageing, said: "People are looking at ageing where, instead of retirement where they stop doing things, they can start to really stay engaged in ways they have not before.

"This will continue to evolve, and so I think people will stay extremely and productively engaged, and the ageing demographic will be seen as an asset rather than a burden."

The global population is expected to grow from 7 billion today to 10 billion in 2050. But this increase, said Oxford University gerontologist Sarah Harper, is because people are living longer even as fertility rates are falling.

At the forefront of this paradigm shift is Japan, where one in five is already aged 70 or older. Tokyo intends to overhaul its social security system by raising the working age limit from 65 to 70, and offering elderly the option of drawing on their pension benefits only beyond 70 in return for higher payments.

But in many countries, warned Princeton University economist Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel winner for economic sciences, ageing populations can strain social security systems if funding is not properly managed.

He noted that the demographic imbalance has led to a quandary in some democracies where politicians pander to the elderly in a bid to win their votes, at the expense of youth, who are then "pressed down by the weight of having to provide for the elderly".

Still, University of Tokyo social psychologist Hiroko Akiyama said that the basis of modern societies and policies overall was built to cater to a much younger population.

"We need to redesign both hard and soft infrastructure to meet elderly needs and to guide a society where all ages - not just the young - can stay healthy, connected and happy," she said, noting that the 100-Year Life can be a "gold mine for innovation".

This extends to medical research, and Dr Tasuku Honjo, who won the Nobel Prize last year for his work in immunology, said he hopes that many more cancers can be treated and controlled by immunotherapy in the long run.

Other experts like Dr Yoshiyuki Sankai, a pioneer in cybernics, an interdisciplinary field involving man, machine and information systems, said the Internet of Things should extend to "Internet of Humans".

The Tsukuba University Professor, through his company Cyberdyne, developed the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL), which is now used for medical treatment in Japan, the United States and Europe.

HAL is billed as the world's first cyborg-type robot that reacts and moves according to the user's brain signals. It has been tapped to help those who are physically disabled, or who have sustained nerve damage, to move as their brain relearns motions and are encouraged to exert larger motor energy over time.

But Dr Tim Hunt, a 2001 Nobel Prize winner for his discovery of protein molecules that control cell division, questioned if such technology could be too costly and end up worsening the rich-poor divide.

Dr Sankai replied that one way to reduce the cost while maximising the reach of new technology is to make sure it can be shared among multiple users.

The concerns are not without precedent. Nobel laureates Dr Deaton, and Dr Randy Schekman, a cell biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, both took aim at pharmaceutical companies that prioritise profits over the welfare of sick patients.

Dr Schekman, whose wife was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease that eventually led to dementia, called for less profit-oriented clinical funding to help researchers get to the root of such debilitating neurological disorders.

"The problem is in defining the disease - how many are we dealing with," he said, noting that Parkinson's Disease "has been given one name but is likely many different diseases which may have many different origins" but pharmaceutical drugs have been created on the assumption that it is a single disease.

The 2013 Nobel Prize winner said: "Very often, Nobel Prizes are given for a basic discovery. But such fundamental science is underfunded. Scientists in universities, in medical schools are often pressured by funding agencies to do work that may be seen as clinically relevant and yet it is basic science that leads to the advances that will ultimately provide cures."

He expressed gratitude to Google co-founder Sergey Brin for backing a vast Parkinson's study, saying he was hopeful this will lead to "advances can be made that can lead to clinical applications and that neuro-degenerative disease will be contained, as I am confident cancer and heart disease will, in the years ahead".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.