I am a biogerontologist, studying the biology of ageing, to understand the molecular processes driving ageing. Ageing is a universal process affecting not only all humans but also most, if not all, animal species. It is a fascinating biological question to study. Why do we age at all? What are the biological processes underlying ageing? Can we use molecular information about the ageing process to improve the way we age, so that we can stay healthy and active for longer? These are questions that us biogerontologists are hoping to answer.
Ageing is now also a pressing social, economic and medical issue. With many countries experiencing rapidly ageing populations, global governments are now facing massive challenges in terms of how to provide care for the elderly population and how to manage the social and economic consequences. It is therefore great news that the House of Lords (HoL) Science and Technology Committee launched an Inquiry into Ageing, interacting directly with scientists to develop future strategies for the UK’s ageing population.
The UK government recognises the importance that ageing has on society by setting an ambitious target for the coming years – the aim is to increase the time we spend healthy as we get old by at least five years by 2035. This is a great but very ambitious goal – so how do we achieve it? This is what the Science and Technology Committee has set out to determine. The inquiry is looking into what treatments could be used to address ageing and ageing-related diseases and what health advice to give to the public about healthy lifestyles.
One aspect of healthy ageing that the Committee is interested in is how the gut microbiome might be affecting health during ageing and if it could be a way to improve health. The idea that the microbiome could affect how we age is not as alien as one might think. The gut microbiome sits in the boundary between diet, metabolism and immunity. Our metabolic and immune functions are important determinants in health and ageing, and intricately connected to the microbiome. The microbiome undergoes remodelling during ageing, and combined with the decline of our immune systems, this is likely to have major effects on our health.
Together with Kay-Tee Khaw, Professor of Clinical Gerontology, University of Cambridge and John Mathers, Professor of Human Nutrition, University of Newcastle, I presented evidence to the Committee in November 2019. We had a great discussion about the effects of modern Western diets, with high levels of processed foods and sugars, on health and ageing, and how these effects are likely to in part act through the microbiome. We also talked about how important it is to do research to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying how interactions with the microbiota affect our health and for the need for researchers from different disciplines to come together to tackle ageing.
An important aspect of improving health and ageing in our populations is the engagement of politicians. We need policies based on scientific evidence and we need funds to conduct this research. The level of engagement and genuine interest of the members of The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee combined with their ambitious enquiry makes me dare to hope that the Committee with contribute to policies that will support a healthier ageing population, improving quality of life for all of us.
Dr Marina Ezcurra
Lecturer in the Biology of Ageing School of Biosciences University of Kent