The New Frontier of Extending Lifespans and Healthspans at SXSW: Key Takeaways

Technology Policy

The New Frontier of Extending Lifespans and Healthspans at SXSW: Key Takeaways

Commentary
Posted on: 1st April 2022
Jess Northend
Policy Lead, Science and Innovation Unit

In March 2022 the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change headed to SXSW in Austin, Texas, with partners from the Stanford Healthcare Innovation Lab (SHIL) and Oracle’s Health Innovation team, for a conversation about the next scientific frontier of extending longevity. 

The discussion covered some of the most exciting areas of innovation in health – including senolytics, regenerative medicine, digital health – as well as the bottlenecks that need to be addressed to make affordable, precision healthcare and longer, healthier lifespans a reality for all.  

Here, we share nine takeaways from the conversation.  

1. Invest in improving healthspans, as well as lifespans.  

While we’ve seen notable increases in life expectancy globally over the past century, the proportion of life spent in good health has not increased at the same pace. People are now living longer – but they’re not necessarily living healthier. This is a major challenge for public health systems and the broader economic model in advanced economies, where the costs of treating chronic illness are already sizeable – and set to increase. Advances in technology and data have real potential in helping us get a better understanding of our health, preventing or delaying the onset of disease, and allowing us to enjoy our extra years.  

2. Scientists are making major breakthroughs in our understanding of why and how we age. 

Advances in longevity research over the past decade have deepened our understanding of the underlying causes of ageing. There is broad agreement that processes such as cellular senescence, stem-cell exhaustion and macromolecular dysfunction are important components of the ageing process – each identified as a key hallmark of ageing. There has also been major progress in the development of senolytics: a class of drugs that aim to selectively eliminate senescent cells have already been developed. This body of research will potentially help us to tackle healthcare issues upstream by slowing the ageing process and delaying the onset of age-related diseases before they present fully in patients.  

3. Biobehavioural and lifestyle changes are essential in improving healthspans.    
 
Is there a ‘low-tech’ solution to extending the healthy portion of life? Evidence shows the number one predictor of longevity is close relationships. Indeed, a Harvard study of adult development showed that close relationships are a better predictor of physical health than cholesterol. More broadly, the growing field of health coaching is focused on supporting people to change behaviours in diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management – all predictors of long-term health. Healthcare providers should seek to make support for this kind of behavioural change – and ‘speciality’ services like nutritionists and physical therapists – more accessible as a means of prevention.  

4. Wearable biosensors will deliver personalised health diagnostics at scale.  
 
Wearables are becoming increasingly ubiquitous – with over one in five Americans using a smart watch or fitness tracker. They can be hugely helpful in establishing personal baselines of health, with users then alerted when their health deviates from their personal standard ranges – an approach that has been particularly valuable in enabling people to detect infectious illnesses like COVID days before symptoms emerge.  
 
Yet our audience polling from SXSW shows there’s a range in terms of how much insight people have into their personal health right now – from 18 per cent who feel they have a good level of insight, right through to 9 per cent of respondents who have little visibility into their personal health data.  
 
By increasing the quality, and frequency of personal health measurements patients have a new opportunity to move away from average population data and increase their own understanding of their personal health - and their ability to predict the onset of diseases when there are deviations from their baselines.  

How much insight do you have into your personal health right now?

Source: TBI live polling, SXSW

5. Routine low-cost genomic sequencing will soon be here – helping to identify and mitigate our susceptibility to disease. 

Our genetic makeup can significantly increase or reduce our chances of developing specific diseases and understanding our unique genomic profile can help us predict and prevent those diseases we are predisposed to. Rapid advancements in next generation sequencing technologies have made it possible to sequence an entire human genome in a matter of hours, for just ~$1,000, giving people insights into genetic variants that can lead to, or increase the risk of, disease, thereby enabling them to act pre-emptively. With the cost of genomic sequencing set to fall even further, it is likely that it will become a regular part of preventative healthcare over the coming five to ten years. Yet, challenges remain over how to incorporate and leverage sequencing results in clinical care - from how the data is integrated and accessed in the patient record, to the expertise needed to interpret and make it actionable. 

6. We’re on the cusp of an explosion in healthcare data, with huge opportunities for clinical innovation.  

The increase in wearables, genetic sequencing and other big data sources promised over the coming decade will unleash even more healthcare data – with important opportunities for these insights to transform clinical care. Customer consent will be an important part of this, and our live audience polling shows that a high proportion of respondents would be willing to share their healthcare data with researchers and professionals.

Would you be willing to share your personal health data with health professionals?

Source: TBI live polling, SXSW

This new wave of data will also continue to drive the need for interoperable, scalable, cost-efficient data management solutions capable of enabling AI/ML, such as cloud infrastructure and data lakehouses. These cloud-based solutions also facilitate collaboration and sharing of public health data across borders, which has grown in importance since the onset of the pandemic. One such example is the Global Pathogen Analysis System, which allows scientists from countries across the globe to share and compare COVID sequencing data to identify and track variants. 

7. Experience and skills that span data science and healthcare, such as bioinformatics, will be in high demand.  
 
With our rapidly ageing population and growing focus on preventative healthcare, demand for those with interdisciplinary skills across data science and healthcare analytics is massively increasing. The panel discussed the sweet spot for experts in areas such as computational biology and bioinformatics, and the need to build a pipeline of talent with these specialist skills if we are to realise the opportunities that advances in biology and technology offer.  

8. Digital health twins and continuous monitoring will be at the core of healthcare over the next decade. 
 
When asked where the future will take us in healthcare, two key areas were highlighted. First, continuous monitoring – not just through wearables or remote monitoring devices, but through clothing and sensors in the rooms that we walk through. Second, digital health twins are set to become increasingly common for mapping individual disease susceptibility, drug development, and device testing, enabling personalised treatments to be developed, with lower levels of patient risk. In both areas, the insights from the data will be translated into an actionable form for patients and providers, enabling proactive prevention instead of reactive intervention.   

9. Health class disparities will likely increase too. 
 
Despite the prospects for extending both healthspan and lifespan, there is a risk that the benefits of innovation in healthcare do not accrue equally across populations. Significant healthcare inequities already exist in our current systems with over 20-year differences in life expectancy reported between different areas of the UK in 2021, it will be increasingly critical that political leaders put new approaches to lifestyle change and data-driven healthcare at the centre of future healthcare reform. 

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