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The Future of Human Healthspan: Demography, Evolution, Medicine, and Bioengineering - Task Group Summaries Conference Summary Megan Chao For many centuries, discovering the fountain of youth has been just a dream for humans. 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 be functional as adults, but as we progress from adulthood to the end of our days, the possibility of going into a functional decline becomes a great risk. It is hard to think about our lives in the long term, and even harder to imagine that maybe one day we could be immobilized in bed, permanently attached to an oxygen tank, or needing assistance from others. The independence we have spent a great deal of our lives finding could be gone in just a short period of time. The elusive nature of the aging process and finding new ways of addressing human healthspan brought more than 150 experts and researchers from public and private institutions across the nation and around the globe to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, California. From November 14 to 16, 2007, 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.
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The Future of Human Healthspan: Demography, Evolution, Medicine, and Bioengineering - Task Group Summaries MEETING IN THE MIDDLE The prospect of interdisciplinary collaboration drove much of the enthusiasm and excitement of participants at the conference, but a lot of work had to be done before arriving in sunny southern California. Because researchers and experts came from a multitude of disciplines, it was important to bridge any gaps in understanding in order to provide the most productive conference possible. Webcast tutorials were broadcasted online in late September, eight in total, designed to help attendees understand terminology used by researchers in different fields. Kicking off the first of the webcasts was Dr. Ken Wachter, professor and chair of demography and statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He presented a tutorial on the demography of aging and the process of extending life expectancy. This was important in painting a picture for an overall understanding of trends in aging, not only in the United States but also around the world. Teresa Seeman, Ph.D., professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, followed with a presentation on stress and lifestyle and how those factors may influence the decline of health at older ages. Other webcasts included the integration of technology in the quality of life, gerontology, regenerative medicine, animal models in research, and life expectancy with regard to social and behavioral traits. CHALLENGING AGING The chair of this year’s conference, Dr. Jack Rowe, professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, summed up the nature of the conference in his opening remarks. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s not sure what’s going to happen,” he said, in reference to the cross-collaborating that would ensue for a greater part of the conference. Before splitting up into assigned task groups though, participants participated in panel discussions and were attentive in listening to speakers. Quick to jump into question-and-answer mode, participants established an in-depth dialogue of topics early on. While considering serious issues in aging and healthspan with regard to scientific research and methods, there was a lot of laughter among participants, which created an environment of ease while promoting a place of intuitive, unrestricted thinking. The conference keynote address was given by Michael Merzenich,
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The Future of Human Healthspan: Demography, Evolution, Medicine, and Bioengineering - Task Group Summaries professor of otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco. He broke down the topic of healthful longevity, an idea involving a longer life in a body that still works. Breaking down the cycle of life into epochs, Merzenich outlined our brain function from child to old age. Intentionally diverse task groups met for the first time after lunch on day one of the conference. Meeting for roughly nine hours in total over two and a half days, each group tackled the challenges and questions presented to them and developed scientific plans. Groups explored topics such as the relationship between demographic mortality rates, aging, and functional human healthspan; the effects of exercise on human healthspan; the cellular and molecular mechanisms of biological aging; inflammation’s effects on aging; and changes in social context to enhance functional status of the elderly. Other groups were tasked with designing new research paradigms to assess healthspan, enhancement and prolongation in experimental research models, and developing technological interventions to overcome barriers to independence and community participation. Thinking of where to even begin work on those topics was a challenge, so participants in each group decided they needed to be on the same playing field by defining key terms. Going into midconference group progress reports, participants came to the consensus that healthspan should be defined as the length of time an individual is able to maintain good health, but would not be equated with lifespan. Health was defined as the ability for a system to maintain or return to homeostasis in response to challenges. Because health is not quantifiable, many agreed that it was necessary to come up with a series of tests to somehow calculate it. Some task groups initially had trouble getting off to a running start, but others eased into project design and discussion. Some members butted heads on ideas, while others smoothly worked off of one another to make giant leaps of progress. The nature of the task groups was greatly varied, but all had their sights set out for them as they paved the way toward solutions for their challenges. Group members not only discussed solutions for the near future but also allowed themselves to imagine possibilities far into the future. Some
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The Future of Human Healthspan: Demography, Evolution, Medicine, and Bioengineering - Task Group Summaries floated around science-fictionlike ideas of new technologies for changing human behavior, limb and organ regeneration, and artificial intelligence. All agreed that in the midst of all the development—from new technologies to assist aging or encouraging certain social behaviors in the elderly—the most important aspect was to ensure access to those services by establishing relationships with health care providers, as well as insurance providers. Even at the end of each day, as task group members grew weary of the long hours spent thinking of ways to address challenges presented to them, they were still eager to network and relax with their newfound colleagues. GETTING IT ACROSS Communicating the depths and complexities of science topics takes great skill and practice—an investment that science and health care journalists 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, a coveted opportunity. Each writer participated in a task group, some not just as reporters but also as active contributors to their group’s discussions, and their summaries have been compiled to provide an overall picture of the conference. The initiative stresses the importance of communication in its mission, which is why they recognize talent and excellent work each year. A selection committee, after an almost yearlong deliberation over hundreds of books, articles, and broadcast media, decided on the winners for this year’s Communication Awards, which were presented at dinner on November 14th. Dr. Eric Kandel, professor at Columbia University, won in the book category for his memoir, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, written from a scientist’s perspective about the human mind. Freelance writer Carl Zimmer won in the newspaper, magazine, and Internet category for his diverse coverage of evolution and biology. Among his works were “Devious Butterflies, Full-Throated Frogs, and Other Liars,” published in the New York Times, and “A Fin Is a Limb Is a Wing,” published in National Geographic. Zimmer also has a science blog hosted by Seed magazine called “The Loom.” For the television and radio category, host and producer Jad Abumrad, cohost Robert Krulwich, and senior producer Ellen Horne were presented with an award for their work on Radio Lab’s “Where Am I?” and “Musical Language,” exemplary examples of making science accessible to general audiences.
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The Future of Human Healthspan: Demography, Evolution, Medicine, and Bioengineering - Task Group Summaries AT THE END OF IT ALL The time spent together was short, but participants came out with a newfound excitement in their research, probably the most important aspect of the conference. The task group challenges and questions acted as a ground for establishing those working relationships, in hopes of fostering future collaborations between members. The initiative offers grants to all participants of the conference to encourage innovative thinking and new projects among those who choose to collaborate with one another. Applicants for these grants can get up to $100,000 for their suggested projects, and NAKFI plans to award up to $1 million for research related to human healthspan. 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 caretakers for humans, or more elderly citizens participating in more outdoor community activities.
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