For British scientist Andrew Steele, the greatest humanitarian challenge is one you may not think of – to enable all of us on this planet to get older without getting old. He has good arguments why he believes addressing this challenge is achievable.
This is the stuff of science, not of science fiction, which is why it has a place at the 2023 Sofia Science Festival, with Andrew coming to Bulgaria for the first time for his presentation on May 13.
Holder of a PhD in physics from Oxford whose interest in humankind turning back the clock on ageing led him to become a computational biologist, Andrew has solid data to point to as a basis for his optimism that human lifespan may be extended.
This calls further research on other members of the animal kingdom, where there are sundry useful examples of combating the decline that comes with getting older – and it also calls for a pivot in medical and biological field for a “silo”-like approach to the life-threatening illnesses currently associated with ageing.
Already, in recent decades, human lifespan has been getting longer. At a previous presentation, two years ago, Andrew showed data that the average human lifespan across the globe is 72.6 years.
With sufficient research in the field, it may be possible to adapt or re-purpose existing medications, for them to serve as real anti-ageing medicine.
This, of course, has wider implications, on the socio-economic front. In an interview with The Sofia Globe, he is asked about these implications, for a population with additional decades of healthy life, regarding working life and retirement age.
Currently, the average life has three phases – about 20 years of education, 40 years working and 20 years of retirement. In a situation where the population is still in good health well into their 90s or even longer, there would have to be a re-thinking of these phases.
Even, for a person perhaps bored with the same occupation for decades, opportunities for re-training, for a new profession.
After all, in a situation where medicine could counter ageing and the difficulties of deteriorating concentration and memory, people over the age of 60 could have the capacity to study that they did in their 20s.
Further, it could even be the case that the passing years might render obsolete a person’s profession, necessitating a pivot to something different.
That said, Andrew adds that the issue of working life and retirement age is an important socio-economic issue now, not to be left for contemplation some time in the future.
Ever optimistic, with his arguments outlined in detail in his book Ageless: The new science of getting older without getting old, Andrew believes that the time frame for genuine progress in anti-ageing drugs is within the foreseeable future, and that with the right efforts and resources, they could be available to people living today.
Asked about transhumanism – the philosophical and scientific movement that advocates the use of current and emerging technologies to augment human capabilities and improve the human condition, he says that he has respect for the notion but sees the approach that he is advocating, of medical-biological research, as much more doable and affordable, rather than one that largely remains in the realm of science fiction, with attendant complexity, vast expense and a very lengthy time-frame before any results may be achieved.
Finally, as someone attending the Sofia Science Festival for the first time – with his presentation to be followed by a book-signing – Andrew is asked which other events at the festival interest him in particular (since its inception, one of the several assets of the festival has been the informal interaction between scientists from various fields and countries).
“I’m really excited to see lots of astronomy events – when I’m not writing and talking about ageing biology, I love to think about the mysteries of the universe,” Andrew says.
“And I’m also looking forward to Steve Brusatte’s talk on The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. There’s a fascinating theory that the reason humans age while animals such as tortoises don’t is due to mammalian evolution after the extinction of the dinosaurs, so I’d love to ask him about that,” he says.
For full details of the programme and other events, tickets and venues for the presentations at Sofia Tech Park, please visit the website of the Beautiful Science Foundation. The Sofia Globe is a media partner of the Sofia Science Festival.