Nobel laureates explore the science of ageing

Dr Yoshiyuki Sankai (right), a pioneer in cybernics, at a demonstration of the Hybrid Assistive Limb, which has been billed as the world's first cyborg-type robot to assist and enhance human motion.
Dr Yoshiyuki Sankai (right), a pioneer in cybernics, at a demonstration of the Hybrid Assistive Limb, which has been billed as the world's first cyborg-type robot to assist and enhance human motion.ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Nobel laureates and experts, in a clarion call yesterday, 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 yesterday, 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 Prize in physiology or medicine in 2009 for discovering telomeres in DNA strands that are worn down and lead to ageing, said: "People are looking at ageing where, instead of retirement where they stop doing things, they can really stay engaged in ways they have not before. This will continue to evolve, and so I think people will stay... productively engaged, and the ageing demographic will be seen as an asset rather than a burden."

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

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 the 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, winner of the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, ageing populations can strain social security systems.

He said the demographic imbalance has led to a quandary in some democracies: 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 modern societies and policies on the whole 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. Dr Tasuku Honjo, who won the Nobel Prize last year for his work in immunology, said he hopes more cancers can be treated and controlled by immunotherapy in the long run.

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

But Dr Tim Hunt, a 2001 Nobel Prize winner for his discovery of protein molecules that control cell division, questioned if such costly technology could 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2019, with the headline 'Nobel laureates explore the science of ageing'. Subscribe