Life, the universe and everything: Part I

10 years ago, in the shadows of the then unfolding financial crisis in the City of London, Club Vita was born. Professor Lord Robert Winston helped us celebrate the safe arrival into uncertain times in the Great Hall at St Bart’s hospital, with some great insights into medical innovation.

On 4 December, I’m looking forward to hosting our 10th birthday seminar, where we will be hearing from several expert friends of Club Vita.  

Time really does fly: that party feels like only yesterday. Yet, Club Vita is almost a teenager. To help us remember just how different 2008 really was from 2018, Erik Pickett has compiled a helpful basket of longevity-related statistics (see below). 

And to get you in the mood for what will be a stimulating seminar, here are some personal reflections, collected in a 3-part serialisation of life, the universe and everything (thanks to another Douglas, sci-fi writer Douglas Adams).

Part 1: Life

Brits are definitely living longer than a decade ago. Between 2008 and 2018, period life expectancy rose for a man by 2 years and for a woman by 1.4 years. However, our research has shown this has not been felt uniformly across society. Men have closed the longevity gap on women over the last decade, but women still get the last laugh with overall longer expected lives.   

The ageing of the UK population has continued. There are now 12.2m people of a state pension age, up from 11.3m in 2008, thanks to the post 2nd world war baby boomers.  And, centenarians are no longer a rare breed: their numbers having almost doubled since 2008 (from 10,000 to 18,000), thanks to the succession of health benefits that they have enjoyed over their lifetimes (sanitation, antibiotics, NHS, unhealthiness of smoking, statins and possibly even food-rationing in the 2nd WW).   

The ageing of our population should come as no surprise to policymakers. These trends depend more on historical birth rates than recent falls in mortality, and have been regularly modelled in the ONS’s population projections.  But popular calls on spending often get in the way of sustainable, long-term policymaking.  Sir Steve Webb, who as pension minister brought us auto-enrolment, knows a thing or two about the challenges of implementing long-term policies. I’m delighted that Steve will join us on 4 December to debate the societal challenges of financing end of life care.     

Amongst those who have lost their hold on life, diseases of the ageing process have started to dominate the causes of death. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has overtaken Ischaemic heart disease to become the most common cause of death. Smoking has been banned in public places and vaping has emerged as a healthier alternative, helping deaths from cardiovascular diseases to fall.

The last 10 years have brought a series of insights from the sequencing of the genome. These have shown us that our genes are less influential on our lifespan than experts thought a decade ago. Actuary-turned-geneticist Peter Joshi will show us that those who believe they are going to live long because they are the offspring of long-lived parents and grandparents is largely the stuff of mythology. How we look after our own bodies turns out to more important than we thought.  Despite this, the mathematical mapping of the genome could open up interesting new ways of modelling life expectancy.    

Cancer Research UK has set itself a demanding, long-term, target to double the pace of improvement in survival rates amongst cancer patients.  Over the 40 years from 1970 and 2010, 10 year survival rates doubled from 24% to 50% (up 26 percentage points). Cancer Research’s strategic target is to get that number up another 25 percentage points by 2030, over just 20 years. I’d like to think that there was a greater awareness that prevention is better than cure, Richard Oakley of Cancer Research will talk about our nation’s poor statistics on testing for cancer: all too often we’re not enabling early interventions.    

Tune in next week for part 2.

Lang mae yer lums reek.


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