There aren’t many people in the world who can honestly say they embrace the ageing process and are happy getting old.
The truth is that ageing brings with it the loss of juvenile vitality and an increased risk of serious health conditions. Bad lifestyle habits and dietary choices also speed up the ageing process.
That said, life expectancy has increased significantly in recent years. According to the United Nations, the average life expectancy for the world in 2023 is 73.16 years. That’s an increase of 0.24% from 2022. In the UAE, it’s 78.46 years – five years older than the global average.
A major contributing factor to this increase is the exponential advancement in technology. We have made so much progress in the last few years that it may soon be possible to turn back the clock, delay ageing, or even stop the process altogether.
From billionaires searching for the key to immortality, to innovative healthcare solutions, technology is being used to help us live longer and healthier lives.
Tech billionaires and the pursuit of longevity
Scientists have been seeking ways to slow down the ageing process since the early 1900s. But it’s today’s tech billionaires that are now taking the lead in ‘anti-ageing’ research.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is reported to be heavily invested in anti-ageing technology. In 2021, he provided the funding for biotech startup Altos Labs, which focuses on slowing down ageing through cellular rejuvenation.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are co-founders of the Breakthrough Prize – an annual $USD3 million award for scientists making transformative advances in the pursuit of extending human life.
But the concept of de-coding the ageing process and prolonging life indefinitely is a contentious one.
One notable name missing from longevity tech investment is Elon Musk. In a recent interview with Business Insider, the world’s richest man expressed his concern that extending human life could lead to serious gerontocracy issues.
In Musk’s opinion, “most people don’t change their minds, they just die. So, if they don’t die, we will be stuck with old ideas and society wouldn’t advance”.
There is also a concern that such advances, dominated by wealthy individuals, will lead to greater inequalities between the rich and poor. There’s the risk that billions could be invested in advanced technologies to create an elite type of ‘designer elderly’, only available to the very wealthy.
But with all the funding and resources available, can tech giants such as Bezos and Zuckerberg ultimately defeat ageing? Or to paraphrase Musk, would you really want to live forever anyway?
Providing a balance between technology, longevity and equality might be achieved by organisations such as the Hevolution Foundation. The Riyadh-based, non-profit organisation is on a mission to extend a healthy lifespan for all ageing populations, not just an elite few.
With an annual Saudi government-backed funding of $USD1 billion, Hevolution is focusing on improving our ‘healthspan’. In other words, not just living longer lives, but living healthier lives.
The foundation’s primary investment interest is in early-stage biotech companies developing therapies and technologies that address the root causes of ageing across the globe. In line with Saudi Vision 2030, Hevolution is also prioritising R&D in key regional age-related health risks such as heart disease and diabetes – two of the main causes of high mortality rates in the GCC region.
Whether Bezos will achieve his dream of turning back the biological clock through cellular reprogramming is yet to be seen. In the meantime, we are already leveraging technology in many ways to help improve our lives, which in turn could extend our lifespan.
Technology at the start of life
When we consider longevity and lifespan, we automatically jump to the end of life.
Genomics, on the other hand, could help increase the possibility of a longer life before it has started. Genetic screening enables health professionals to identify risks of inherited conditions and congenital disorders, before, during and after pregnancy.
Genomic technology is advancing rapidly in the Middle East. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have launched initiatives to increase the adoption of advanced genomic technologies to provide more precise and targeted prevention, diagnosis and treatment of chronic, genetic and rare conditions.
For example, under the UAE’s National Genome Strategy, automated sequencing machines can provide information on an individual’s genetic makeup based on a blood or saliva sample. This will increase the possibility of early disease detection, while enabling doctors to devise more accurate and personalised treatment plans.
Medical technology may be a major contributor to increased life expectancy, but it’s the rapid adoption of AI-driven preventive medicine that’s really making an impact on our lives.
AI-empowered data analytics allow doctors and patients to track and self-monitor health patterns. This means that diseases can be accurately diagnosed and treated in the early stages.
AI can also streamline processes, automatically updating and analysing patient data. This allows for more personalised, precise and effective patient care management.
AI-powered wearables such as fitness trackers and smartwatches are able to monitor the wearer’s health and physical activity in real time. This data can encourage individuals to make healthy lifestyle changes and alert them to any health issues early on.
Wearables can also transmit actionable patient data to a doctor or health professional. An example of this is Abu-Dhabi-based data analytics company, Presight AI. Partnering with healthcare experts G42, they intend to offer an ‘at home’ service to individuals. The aim is to use data from a person’s wearable for early diagnosis of health problems, as well as offering healthy lifestyle recommendations.
Leveraging food tech to encourage healthier eating
While advancements in technology could help to prolong life, the irony is, that for many of us, our lifestyle habits and dietary choices are helping to shorten it.
Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death in the world. One of the main risk factors of heart disease is obesity arising from unhealthy dietary habits. With an annual global death toll of 11 million, scientific research reveals that a poor diet kills more people than smoking.
In a 2019 study funded by the Bill and Melissa Gates foundation, the UAE was placed in the second-worst category for annual deaths arising from an unhealthy diet. In fact, 40% of mortalities in the UAE are due to heart disease.
So, when you consider that prevention is better (and less expensive) than cure, is it possible to leverage technology to improve eating habits and subsequently prolong the lives of many?
The UAE believes so.
One food tech startup is on a mission to encourage the UAE population to eat less meat. Vegan meat brand Switch Foods has recently set up a plant-based meat production facility in Abu Dhabi. The tech centre produces a range of plant-based foods such as vegan kebabs, burgers, mince and kofta, derived mainly from peas.
The GCC is one of the largest meat-eating regions in the world. But substituting meat, even just a couple of times a week, is a step towards a healthier diet and a potentially longer lifespan.
Food Tech Valley is another initiative focusing on developing advanced technologies for sustainable and nutritious food production. Using innovative methods such as vertical farming, Dubai’s Food Tech Valley will give the UAE population access to home-grown, affordable, nutritious foods. The aim is to enhance domestic food security while promoting a healthier lifestyle for all.
So, is technology the key to longevity?
To a certain degree, yes. Advancements in technology, especially in preventative care, offer us the opportunity to take better care of ourselves and potentially enjoy a longer and healthier life.
Whether technology could help us achieve immortality is another story. Even in today’s digital age, where everything seems possible, it may still be too fantastical to contemplate just yet.
So, rather than pursuing a modern version of the ‘philosopher’s stone’, maybe our focus should be on making our present lives healthier and happier.
If we can leverage technology to achieve that, we will, in effect, be giving ourselves a better chance of living a longer and more fulfilling life.