The second Biology of Ageing Conference, jointly organised by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and the National University Health System (NUHS), in partnership with King's College London, was held on 14 November 2017, in Singapore.
The conference represents Singapore's commitment to tackling the issue of ageing through research and development efforts. It was attended by many international speakers and guests, demonstrating that ageing is a topic with growing interest worldwide.
Impact of ageing on societies
Many developed countries are facing rapidly ageing populations as a result of a combination of lower birth rates and rising longevity.
By 2050, the world's population aged 60 years and older is expected to more than double to 2 billion, up from 900 million in 2015.
Globally, ageing is seen as a problem because it is often associated with debilitating conditions, reduced quality of life and escalating healthcare costs.
Ageing populations typically face major health, societal and economic challenges.
However, when we look at aging from the perspective of longevity, it should actually be good news. Mr Lim Chuan Poh, chairmain of A*Star said, "It means we have made successful advancements in public health, medicine, science, and technology, and this is why people can live longer".
Understanding the biology of ageing
In this regard, fundamental biological research in ageing is more essential than ever, as it helps us to understand the ageing process to better inform our healthcare policy and approaches to this challenge.
In recent years, researchers in this field have made substantial progress in understanding the genetics, biology, and physiology of ageing.
Ultimately, research and innovation will be the key enabler to unleashing the potential of increased longevity.
Collaborative studies to advance ageing-related R&D
To date, here in Singapore, there are already various ageing-related research initiatives, many of which involve multiple research players including A*STAR, NUHS, and other universities and hospitals.
At the first Biology of Ageing Conference in 2015, the SG90 Longevity Cohort Study, an A*STAR-NUHS initiative to study a cohort of approximately 1,500 elderly individuals in Singapore aged 90 years old and above was launched. This is intended to select those with the best health status as a model of successful ageing. The purpose of the SG90 study is to identify biomarkers and signatures for healthy ageing and longevity, be it genetics, diet or lifestyle factors. These insights will help design impactful interventions to maximise the health span of the elderly in society, meaning the length of time that a person remains healthy in his/her life
Preliminary findings from the SG90 study have yielded interesting observations, such as gender difference as a factor in healthy ageing.
- SG90 researchers have found that Singaporean men appear to be healthier in old age compared to Singaporean women, as they are less likely to have impaired cognition (30% in men versus 39% in women)
- The men are also more likely to be independent in their activities of daily living (47% in men versus 34% in women)
- Initial results also indicate that more men have a positive outlook of their health, and are less depressed or anxious compared to women
A*STAR is also involved in another cohort study, the ongoing second Singapore Longitudinal Ageing Study (SLAS-2) alongside the National University of Singapore (NUS). This study commenced in 2009 and involves 3,200 Singaporean men and women aged 55 and above.
- Moving forward, the SG90 researchers hope to delve further into uncovering the reasons for this gender difference as a factor in healthy ageing, and understand whether it stems from educational differences, family support, or other considerations
- The long-term aim is to eventually reverse the gender disparity by introducing specific intervention measures that will allow both men and women to live their best lives.
As part of SLAS-2, Dr Anis Larbi and his colleagues at A*STAR's Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) have made several significant discoveries that have advanced our knowledge of human ageing.
Mr Lim also remarked, "Perhaps, the most recent feather in the cap for ageing research in Singapore came in August this year, when the Centre for Healthy Ageing was established at NUHS, under the leadership of ageing expert, Professor Brian Kennedy. The mission of the Centre is to find strategies to keep the Singapore population healthier longer. This Centre is a further testament to Singapore's commitment to leverage on advances in science and medicine to help our elderly live disease-free and active lives. I look forward to many fruitful collaborations that will be fostered between A*STAR and the Centre for Healthy Ageing as well as the wider research community for the benefits of Singapore and beyond".
- Immune cells that don't age? Dr Larbi's team has identified a population of immune cells, known as gamma delta T cells, that do not show signs of ageing, and are important for fighting infections such as TB, as well as cancer. Dr Larbi and his team are identifying factors that have led to this quality of resistance to ageing, and finding ways to harness these factors to slow down the body's overall ageing process.
- Could infections lead to dementia in the long run? Dr Larbi's research has also found a relationship between cognitive impairment and a disturbance of immune cell populations. This has led to further studies by Dr Larbi's team on whether the onset of age-related diseases like dementia could be more definitively linked to the perturbation of the immune system caused by infections, etc.
- Dispelling vaccination myths. Dr Larbi's team has conducted a study based on local respondents which reveals that the elderly respond well to flu vaccinations, debunking the popular misconception that the elderly should not be vaccinated due to their weakened immune systems.
- What does it mean to be frail? Dr Larbi's team has discovered key inflammatory markers associated with frailty, which is an age-related condition characterised by slowness and fatigue, amongst other symptoms. The condition of frailty is currently not well understood, and clinical assessments of frailty can be subjective. With the discovery of these inflammatory markers in the immune system, Dr Larbi's team hopes to introduce and popularise a more objective assessment of frailty based on biological markers.