Demographics


I’ve decided to stay down here at Emerging Technologies for another day. My experiments are languishing back at the Buck, but it’s hard to stay away from a concentration of diverse intellects, especially when they are buying me lunch.

I love listening to bright people talk, in part because I always have ideas at a more rapid rate myself while I’m sitting in the audience. Rather than blog coherently about the rest of the conference, I thought I would record those thoughts here, in no particular order:

  • Chris Luebkeman of Arup gave a talk about urban environments. During a bit about sustainable urban centers, he asked: What happens to the elderly who can’t ride bicycles? That got me thinking about the idea of “segmental” longevity therapies — I’m using the term in the sense of “segmental” progerias, conditions in which an organism expresses some but not all component of accelerated aging. What if the first longevity therapies are much better at dealing with one aspect of the aging process than others? For example, imagine a therapy that kept brains completely intact (no Alzheimer’s) but was lousy at maintaining the musculature — or even more problematically, vice versa. Obviously we’re not going to design therapies to ignore specific systems, but on the other hand, we’re not in tight control over what sorts of technologies are going to emerge (or come into wide use) first. The first longevity therapies may well be segmental, whether or not they “ought” to be. What are the ramifications of that?

  • John Wilbanks of Science Commons gave a talk on Uncommon Knowledge and Open Innovation; it looks like he’s blogged a bit about it here. He started by espousing the view (which I share) that science has been “under-revolutionized” by progress in connectivity on the web: in his words, it has become “digitized but not digital”, i.e., we’re creating electronic images of printed papers rather than creating genuinely new forms. He went on to lament several problems in science (legal, labor, and institutional) that conspire to create what he calls “uncommon knowledge,” i.e., knowledge that does not lend itself to sharing. But, Wilbanks argues, the Web is a place where “rivalrous resource” assumptions don’t apply: I can have a copy of a paper, but that doesn’t stop you from having a copy to that paper. Copyright law and disincentives against sharing create a “tragedy of the anti-commons” in which scientists are forbidden by cultural tradition and legal constraint from forming a “crowd” in the most modern sense (“crowdsourcing,” “wisdom of crowds”). The Science Commons movement, then, is an attempt to create an infrastructure wherein sharing is easy, straightforward, and legal.

    Best line: “Right now, scientific database users don’t have the power of Facebook users.”

  • Jane McGonigal of Institute for the Future spoke about Superstruct: How to invent the future by playing a game. (The Superstruct project combined a game setting with wisdom of crowds to try to make interesting predictions about the future.) At Sci Foo last year Jane talked about ways in which we might harness the power of massively parallel multiplayer online games to help do science (e.g. by creative gamelike incentives for large groups of users to perform complex image-processing tasks), which I thought was a cool idea. She gave a good creative talk but didn’t say much about the use of games in science this time around, however (I left a little early, for the record).

Continuing with his recent favorite theme of sending people your body fluids in the mail, Attila Csordás at Partial Immortalization has a very thorough treatment of Silicon Valley “personal genomics” startup 23andMe.

Attila’s treatment is as detailed as any in the popular press, bringing to bear his own scholarly/scientific viewpoint and approaching the issues from multiple perspectives (including that of hobbits). If you haven’t been following the big launch of a company that’s sure to drive discussion on the personal impact of the genomics revolution (at least, among those with $1000 to spend on a profile), rush on over and check it out.

Oh — almost forgot — the aging connection: While the company is initially devoted to assessment of disease risk based on known associations, they’re also going to attempt to use a novel application of social networking to bring private citizens into studies that will seek to define heretofore unknown genetic risk factors for other conditions. With clever study design (and possibly simply with shrewd data-mining techniques), one can imagine any number of ways for longevity researchers to capitalize on the sudden influx of people willing to volunteer their genetic information for analysis and follow-up.

Several items in the lay press today point to the shape of things to come. According to this AP item, the average life expectancy of Americans crept up to 78 years in 2005. Although this a modest incremental increase compared to the previous year, we are making steady progress in the War on Death. Mortality from the top three killers (heart disease, cancer and stroke) has fallen, but the incidence of death by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases has risen. The CDC has the full (preliminary) report here. Another report reveals that Americans are staying the workforce longer. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (here) also suggests that, despite retiring at a chronologically later point, Americans also spend a greater fraction of their lives in retirement, thanks to extended longevity.

Meanwhile, one Russian province is fighting its changing demographic profile by proposing an official Day of Conception with prizes for couples that deliver the goods exactly nine months later (read about it here). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has seen increased mortality by many of the diseases that elsewhere have been retreating, with an added bonus of alcoholism.

A meeting devoted to clinical research in aging. This is mainstream geriatrics, with a twist: the organizers have a higher-than-usual interest in work related to translating basic biogerontological findings into the clinic.

The UCSD Clinical Investigation Institute (CII) and Nature Medicine invite you to attend the third annual Frontiers of Clinical Investigation Symposium, Aging 2007: Bench to Bedside to be held October 18-20, 2007 in La Jolla, California. The theme for this year’s symposium explores innovative approaches to bridge laboratory investigation to clinical research in aging. The topic stands at the crossroads of many disciplines, including endocrinology and cardiology as well as neurodegenerative and musculoskeletal diseases. Multi-disciplinary sessions will include basic, translational, and clinical presentations on cutting edge research to provide an integrated approach to understanding the science of healthy aging. This symposium will provide unique insights and tools for optimizing and streamlining clinical investigation from discovery to drug development.

Abstract submission deadline is August 27th; registration gets costlier after September 16th.

More at the conference website.

(Hat tip to reader and biogerontologist John Cumbers for bringing this conference to our attention.)

One way to extend human lifespan is… to wait. Average life expectancies in industrialized countries are slowly increasing over time — though this increase is slower than the march of time itself. If the increase in average lifespan were as fast (or faster) as the increase in calendar time, we could be said to have achieved “actuarial escape velocity,” a concept I learned from this entry at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies weblog:

US life expectancy at 65 up 1 year from 1999 to 2004…

Meaning the U.S. is at 20% of escape velocity. However longevity gains were not shared equally by gender or ethnicity (or social class, but that’s not a term Americans know). During 1999-2004, life expectancy at age 65 years increased by 1.0 year for the overall U.S. population, 1.1 years for white men, 0.8 years for white women, 0.9 years for black men, and 1.3 years for black women.

Leaving aside for the moment the snotty (but, I’m sure, good-natured) implication that Americans don’t understand social class, I think this is a valuable idea. If the rate of increase in average life expectancy was 1 year per annum (five times larger than the current rate of 0.2 years per annum), we’d find ourselves no closer to death (on average) as time went by — a situation with massive demographic implications, obviously, but also a significant inflection point in the story of our relationship with aging and a useful benchmark for practical considerations of anti-aging research.

(Hat tip to Longevity Meme for this link)