Winter/Spring 2008 Vol. 8 No. 1
Aging, Longevity, and 'Healthspan'
By Megan Chao
For many centuries, discovering the fountain of youth has been just a dream. Aging is an inevitable process in human life, the result of a highly variable biological cycle. As we grow through childhood, we learn fundamental skills to function as adults, but as we progress from adulthood to the end of our days, the possibility of slipping into functional decline becomes a risk. The independence we spent a great deal of our lives seeking could be gone in just a short period of time.
The elusive nature of the aging process and the need to find new ways of addressing the human healthspan -- the period of one's life during which he or she is generally healthy and free from serious or chronic illness -- brought more than 150 experts and researchers from public and private institutions around the globe to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, California, last November. For three days, it was a convergence of great minds for the fifth annual conference of the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI). Attendees from a wide range of fields, including public health, bioengineering, gerontology and neuroscience, challenged this year's topic, "The Future of Human Healthspan: Demography, Evolution, Medicine, and Bioengineering."
In his opening remarks, the chair of the conference steering committee, Columbia University Professor Jack Rowe, said, "I'm sure I'm not the only one who's not sure what's going to happen," in reference to the cross-collaboration that would ensue for a greater part of the conference. Before splitting up into assigned task groups, participants participated in panel discussions, establishing an in-depth dialogue of topics early on. The relaxed atmosphere promoted intuitive, nonrestricted thinking, allowing the participants to consider serious issues in aging and healthspan.
The conference keynote address was given by Michael Merzenich, professor of otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco. He broke down the topic of healthy longevity, an idea involving a longer life in a body that still works well, and divided the cycle of life and brain function into epochs, from childhood to old age.
Intentionally diverse task groups met for roughly nine hours in total, developing scientific plans to tackle the challenges presented to them. They explored topics such as the effects of exercise on human healthspan, the cellular and molecular mechanisms of biological aging, and changes in social context to enhance functional status of the elderly. Others were tasked with designing new research paradigms to assess healthspan and developing technological interventions to overcome barriers to independence and community participation, for example.
Some of the groups initially had trouble getting started; others eased right into project design and discussion. Certain members butted heads on ideas, while others bounced their ideas off of one another to make progress. The dynamics of the task groups may have varied greatly, but all had their sights set on the challenges before them, discussing solutions for the near future as well as allowing themselves to imagine far-future possibilities. Some even floated around science fiction-like ideas of new technologies for changing human behavior, limb and organ regeneration, and artificial intelligence.
GETTING IT ACROSS
Communicating the complexities of science topics takes skill and practice -- an investment that science journalists must make to get the facts straight. Thirteen journalism students from graduate science writing programs around the country were invited to cover this year's conference, each participating in a different task group.
NAKFI stresses the importance of communication in its mission, which is why it recognizes talent and excellent work each year in the reporting and communicating of science, engineering, and medicine to the general public. A selection committee, after an almost yearlong deliberation over a wide range of media, decided on the winners for the 2007 Communication Awards, which were presented during the conference at a dinner held on Nov. 14. Eric Kandel was presented an award in the book category for his memoir, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. Freelance writer Carl Zimmer won in the newspaper, magazine, and Internet category for his coverage of evolution and biology, and Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, and Ellen Horne won in the television and radio category for their work on Radio Lab's "Where Am I?”
AT THE END OF IT ALL
The time spent together was short, but participants came out with a newfound excitement for their research. Task group challenges provided a foundation for establishing working relationships, fostering future collaborations between members. While the conference itself has passed, many researchers are well on their way to developing new ways to address aging. You never know, you might soon see robots as care takers for humans, or more elderly citizens participating in outdoor community activities.
Megan Chao is a graduate student in broadcast journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. With a background in biology and creative writing, she plans to produce long-form science and health documentaries for television after graduation.
For more information on the Futures Initiative and this conference, visit <www.keckfutures.org>.