At Ending Age-Related Diseases 2021, Elena Milova of Lifespan.io interviewed Tina Woods on the development of a longevity ecosystem, the importance of language, and the social aspects of extending lifespans.
Elena: Greetings to the participants of Ending Age-Related Diseases 2021. This conference brings together thought leaders and researchers working on rejuvenation biotechnology with the goal of extending healthy human life.
Introducing longevity interventions requires overcoming regulatory barriers, educating the medical community and discussing price tags. We all know that making treatments available doesn’t guarantee life extension, as there are other factors at play. The current pandemic uncovered many weaknesses in healthcare systems around the globe. This made it clear that if we want to increase life expectancy, then we must adopt a holistic approach.
These are the questions I’m discussing today with Tina Woods, CEO of Collider Health, an ecosystem architect working with organizations in both private and public sectors to accelerate innovation and achieve sustainable, transformational health systems. Tina is also the key driver of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity that is working with the UK government on the goal of adding five extra years of healthy, independent life for everyone by 2035.
Elena: Hello, Tina, thanks for joining us today.
Tina: Thank you so much for involving me. I was involved about a little over a year ago at one of your conferences. It’s really nice to be here again.
Let us discuss your work a little bit. What do you think is the most important achievement of the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity that you managed to achieve since its inception?
Policymakers and government always are in some ways going to be a step behind the sheer pace of change that’s going on in the scientific and technological world; we know that. You need to have some sympathy. Even for the ones who are in it, it’s difficult to keep pace. The one thing that we knew we had to do as part of this process of engaging government and policymakers is this whole process of opening eyes to all the stuff that’s going on, but seeing it from multiple perspectives.
We made a point of engaging with all the different perspectives that had a role to play in this sort of system change thinking. It’s about the scientific community, and obviously, the technology community, it’s about the business community, it’s about third sector, it’s about the NHS, but it’s also about the general public.
We spent quite a lot of time developing our group of experts and people that we felt should be at the table, and then going through this process of drilling down with all the different perspectives, then coming up and comparing and contrasting views. We’re very focused on this North Star goal of HLA +5: how do we achieve healthy life expectancy while minimizing health inequalities, and bear in mind this is right before COVID. Very quickly, within nine months, we got together around the table many times and managed to come out with nine recommendations, two of which are very, very advanced now, because we published our strategy for a healthier, longer life last February, so it’s right before COVID struck.
It was funny, because I just came back from Singapore, I was invited by the National Association of Medicine Global Healthy Longevity Program as a speaker. I remember when I hit the hotel room in Singapore, it was temperature checks, and I had a bag with the mask, and COVID had just started to get on the global radar.
When I got back, it was sort of like, oh, gosh, is the UK going to be affected by this, but we launched this strategy, and then had the support of our Secretary of State, and that got a lot of claim for how we approached it in terms of distilling down the nine key things we really need to get right from all these multiple perspectives.
Then COVID struck, and then we had a look, we could see when the data was first coming out. Our recommendations were even more compelling, because it really was focusing on this system change around health prevention, around addressing health inequalities. The two recommendations, I was really proud of that.
Just more recently, about three months ago, we published a follow-on report to say that life has moved on, the world has changed, what should be our short-term priorities? We contextualize, we try to be quite pragmatic about the short-term priorities.
We have a new government, a new prime minister, so we identified a handful of priorities that certainly in the next political cycle we should focus on, because there’s always that balancing act: the here and now, what we can do now, and the long term. We know that government and our institutions, they run on a fairly short timeframe, which I think is the big challenge, because they’re thinking five-year horizons.
When you’re thinking about health prevention, and certainly healthy longevity, life course stuff, you’re looking at really, really long time horizons, which will have a payback that takes a long, long time. That’s a massive, massive challenge.
Two of the things that we’re working on now is we’ve formed a Business for Health venture, which is looking at developing a business index to measure and incentivize the business contribution to health. The business community is a massive stakeholder in all of this, which has been really underrated from a public health and population health perspective.
We want to find a way to actually measure the role of business in health, and that’s in three key parameters, which is around employee health and well-being and the workforce health bit. We know that in the data, we will see that mental health and muscular skeletal conditions, as well as even things like headache and backache, things like that, these have massive impacts on workforce health and actually create big pressures on our healthcare systems to address.
That is an area through better health interventions at a workplace level could have a massive impact. Again, that one impact alone could have made a massive, massive difference.
The other level down, of course, is business impact in terms of products and services. There are many products and services, certainly, this is the work of my UK Research and Innovation work, the Healthy Aging challenge, we’re trying to stimulate that marketplace. We want to see more products and services to keep people healthy. As well, we want to engage people in new technologies, certainly what has come out through COVID, the COVID experience, how important communities are in generating local health resilience building.
We have various policy drivers at the moment, which are really trying to create much more localized public health intelligence systems, so that it’s not just centrally driven. I know the States is different, you’ve got your 50 states, it’s much more federated, but we’re moving in that direction in the UK context. We’re taking more of a place-based approach, recognizing that organizations, public health systems, but also businesses, social enterprises, local community organizations, they all have a massive role to play in terms of communities and regeneration of areas that have been left behind.
We have a whole program in the UK, leveling up health. The focus of our recent report is, how do you create a more equal playing field in the health of the local population. This has a massive role, because they employ local people.
We know that even things like good jobs, good wages, people in low-paid jobs tend to be much less healthy. It’s part of this whole health inequality situation. There’s a massive role in resilience building, and local community building, and the wider societal impact that business has a role to play in. We’re looking at all these and setting up a very simple way to standardize and measure the business impact of health.
We’re looking at specific industry sectors, I mentioned the food industry, so that’s very high on our map, we’re looking at housing, we know that housing has a massive impact. We need more better social housing to house people better, environments that are not overcrowded, have access to clean spaces, looking at transportation policies that people approach to walk more.
These are all things where government can have a huge role to play to create a better environment for people, better playgrounds for kids. To your point earlier, the legislation policy drivers to encourage better practice in the food case, but actually most fundamental, which I’m really excited about, is taking a leaf out of the climate change experience and bringing health into ESG mandates for investment, for significant long-term patient capital, into very bold, transformative approaches to health prevention and also care.
Because we need that, and we need much a longer-term horizon, which the investor community can do and be much more bold about the solutions. We’re creating a framework where we’re bringing health into ESG mandates. The business index is the precursor to that.
We kind of want to do what climate change has done, which is about 10 years ahead of us, just like the big investors and pension funds, they’re disinvesting away from coal andfossil fuels. We want to see the same thing happen in health, we want disinvestment, as we’ve already seen in tobacco, and even now, alcohol, we want to see that in health-harming industries, we want to disinvest from ultra-high processed foods.
We want to have a mentality where good, sustainable, responsible business investment is commercially attractive, as we’re seeing in the climate change space. Those sorts of things, we’re looking at in the business for health initiative that came out of the initial work, and I’m very involved with that. The other thing that is very significant dimension, which has more of a link to the science, technology, we’re creating an Open Life Data Framework. We deliberately avoided the word health because we want it to take the life course, the kind of life trajectories approach.
The massive focus at the moment with all of our policy and our life sciences industry, which is very strong in the UK, as you probably know, and biotech. Moving that away from just looking at the data in the sick care space because NHS and carrier data gets the lion’s share of attention in terms of policy investment, and looking at the wider determinants of health.
Of course, big tech are very, very conscious of all the data points in our lives, this is very much the heart of a lot of the work. I know the longevity scientists are looking at digital fingerprints and other biomarkers and all the rest of it. We’re trying to create an open innovation environment with the right governance mechanisms to open up much better data sharing and connectivity, much more awareness about what we can do to develop products and services to keep us healthy and to develop the insights to identify disadvantaged populations.
All these sorts of things will be unearthed through this Open Life Data Framework. We’re taking lessons from open banking, which has been very successful in opening up the innovation ecosystem for fin-tech, we want to take some of those lessons learned and bring it into this space. That’s a very busy project at the moment, we’re going to be publishing a framework in the next couple of months.
Private sector data is obviously very much a focus of this. That’s obviously what we’re looking at in the context of the business index that we’re developing within Business for Health. All of this, we’re aligning around another very interesting piece of work in the UK, the development of the ONS Health Index. The Office of National Statistics are developing a health index, which has taken an asset-based approach to health, which is around healthy people, healthy lives, and healthy places.
We’re trying to align all the thinking around a different view of health. Looking to other models that we’ve seen in New Zealand, for example, where they’re measuring the success of their nation on health and well-being and not just GDP. It’s a whole new way of thinking about what really matters to nations and societies. It’s looking at a systemic approach to global challenges and the opportunities to kind of address them through a different way of looking at the world, the problem, and also the solutions.
That sounds wonderful, you’re doing an impressive piece of work. This is something of incredible complexity, in my view. I will be very curious to learn, how did you manage to engage so many stakeholders at once to discuss the creation of those health and longevity ecosystems? Obviously, it’s been a success, and I really hope that this positive trend will proceed.
What’s your secret sauce when discussing these topics with all those stakeholders? Many of them can be actually pretty new to the field. How important is language?
For a start, you need a shared language that resonates with as many people as possible. What’s been really, really helpful, and it’s so important, is to have that mission statement that you can’t really argue with, that everyone can get behind. From that perspective, the UK goal, which is in our current manifesto commitment as well, how do we achieve healthy life expectancy or minimize health inequalities, that is something that is declared, it’s a North Star; you can bind everyone around that.
Now, how you get there, it may be that different stakeholders have different ways of seeing it. You can break down those those initial barriers by being very focused on that goal. That was really, really helpful. It was very interesting, because I think the whole language is really important.
I know I’ve spoken to many people about this idea of creating almost like a lexicon for longevity so that we can all be speaking the same language, because there’s so much confusion, what we mean by aging, ending aging, and what does longevity mean? What is healthy longevity? There’s a lot of confusion.
Having that simplicity in language, for example, I have noticed that because of the mission statement that we had, we’ve started talking because we’ve been much more positive about how we see it and how we can get to achieving this goal rather than seeing always as a problem. Already, the language has shifted from healthy aging towards the idea of healthy longevity, because it’s a more empowering language.
Unfortunately, aging is still tinged with negativity and the kind of ageism that does pervade a lot of the Western world, we still see aging in very negative terms. I think having a more positive language does open up the opportunity and the optimism around this. I think it is important. Ultimately, when you’re bringing such diverse stakeholders together, in the end, you have to have messages that will resonate with them so that they listen as a starting point, but then it’s about engaging, but then it’s about action.
Coming out of the pandemic, what I find really interesting is that we realize, for example, Westernized society completely driven by the old way of seeing things as GDP and profit-driven growth and all these sorts of things. I think we’re starting to see things differently. Now, what else is important to human beings to society, and that has come out really strongly as a result of the pandemic.
Language is important, the mission is important, but we’re getting more hard fact data about how closely health is connected to wealth and prosperity, because you can’t really argue with that, because that gives an incentive for the business community. It also gives an incentive to policymakers to focus on health and preventative health by seeing the sheer economics of it, and I only have to point to a few very gold standard reports.
McKinsey does some great work. They’ve put a cost on ill health and what you will gain. They’ve calculated addressing preventable health and the diseases that lead to poor health. You’re looking at a 10% uplift in GDP just by addressing all the chronic diseases that we are currently getting that could be prevented if we change our lifestyle. That’s massive.
My colleagues, Andrew Scott, and David Sinclair, they worked on a really interesting paper that was more specific to the aging question, ending aging, but they showed the sheer uplift that you will get by slowing the pace of aging and increasing life expectancy with good health. Their calculation was that it would add $38 trillion to the USA alone in terms of net gain.
These are massive figures. Once you get the economics showing what the cost of ill health is, we know it has a massive cost in terms of productivity and taking people out of work. They’re less economically productive, and they lose their will to live. You can see that with the opioid crisis, once people lose their purpose, and if they’re in ill health, they’re not able to work and contribute to society, it has these huge impacts. If they’re not able also to care for others, it’s a massive impact on the bottom line for society economically, and of course, the sheer social costs are just absolutely gigantic.
I think the economic arguments are becoming much stark and clear about why addressing our health through longevity science, but also, I have to say, the message that I would put forward is that we have to understand that ending aging and attacking the root of aging and understanding the chronic diseases of aging, that’s a very important part of it.
Such an important part is addressing the wider circumstance and why it is that we get trapped in ill health. That’s a much bigger question, which sometimes gets neglected, but I think does need to be very much part of the solution in terms of really delivering on this healthy longevity for all people.
Thank you. I think that’s a great piece of advice. I wanted to ask one more question about the language, though.
You’re in this field for several years; did you feel that there was a shift towards some more positive views on life extension, as opposed to just health extension lately in those meetups and groups and collaborations that you are setting up?
That’s a really interesting question. I think so. I think for those who are more in the know, and I’m talking for those who are more advanced in in the scientific community and longevity research in general, we can see that really the ultimate goal is to see this convergence of healthspan and lifespan. You want minimum morbidity to the end, and all these sorts of things.
What I would see though, outside of that, is much more use of healthspan and lifespan, just because there’s growing recognition of how important our health is. Also, just realizing the significant issues that we have with healthy life expectancy. The big policy focus in the UK has been very much on healthy life expectancy rather than life expectancy, because what we’ve seen is just the sheer magnitude of the gap between the years lived in good health between the poorest and the richest in society.
There’s a social question that has come up and has really put the focus on this whole issue around healthspan. From a policy perspective, I think it’s much easier to focus on, it’s more of an imperative than on life extension, because there’s no point in extending your life if you’re going to have a crappy life.
How do we address that question? At the same time, recognizing that a crap life is often linked to your health status, which is then linked to your other determinants of health. I think that’s where it has focused, certainly through the policy lens and the government lens, because in the end, the government priorities are going to be different from longevity scientists. That has to be understood.
It is about how do you create that shared language? I would say that shared language has converged around the healthspan aspect of it. As people get more aware of the gap, closing that gap and morbidity, because of course, most of our resources are spent on that final stage of life at the moment when we’re dealing with these very chronic, multi-complex, multi-morbidities.
I think it’s something like 15% of the NHS budget goes to those last two weeks of life, which is crazy, we need to shorten that, we need to focus on keeping us healthier. I just think it’s creating the right arguments for the stakeholders. Healthspan is very much more the focus in terms of the policy lexicon than lifespan.
One more question, then.
Taking into account all the enormous amount of information that you have collected during your work with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Longevity, and everything that we learned from the situation with this pandemic, what do you think must be the key actions and key projects that policymakers should be focusing on?
I’ll talk from experience with me and the work that we’re doing in the UK context, but I think a lot of the messages and action points are similar for other Western nations and the US. The main takeaway is that we cannot separate health and wealth, it is totally connected. I think we need to keep on seeing health, and I think this has come out of the pandemic, as our greatest asset, and we need to protect, we need to do what we can to keep us, develop our health trajectory through all the technologies and scientific advances and also policy innovation that we have.
We do have to realize that we can’t really improve healthy longevity, healthy life expectancy for everyone without dealing with the health inequalities situation and the systemic inequalities. I think that is a really big message for all of us. When you’re so excited by the research, you have to keep going back to the reality of people’s lives day to day.
We also have to realize that so much of our health is shaped by factors outside of our control, which is why government policymakers do have to step in, it’s about the wider circumstance, the environment in which we thrive or don’t thrive, and access to new technologies.
The other thing which is worth mentioning is that there is something about as human beings that I don’t know if it can be answered by science, there’s that sense that drives us all forward. You’ll see that, it’s what drives our curiosity, and certainly the ambitions and interests and ingenuity of our scientific community. That’s really important.
It’s not our survival instinct, it’s not just hardwired in our genes like it is in animals. There’s something else that you can’t necessarily answer purely through science alone. That is also a really important part. It’s about creating a society where we all have really great lives, because we don’t want to live forever if we don’t have a good life. That’s a really difficult question to answer. Health and wealth is so fundamentally connected in terms of our future prosperity, so we need to focus on that.
That’s a great answer, thank you, I’m very satisfied with it. I personally think that opportunities that people have in terms of developing themselves, becoming better, getting education, pursuing professional careers, even by giving people those opportunities, we can achieve more, and I’m actually a big fan of the ideas of Jacque Fresco.
In this regard, the Venus Project actually has many great ideas and this is one of them. Give human beings an opportunity to properly develop, provide the resources for development, and you will see how this can dramatically change not only their life but also the life of our society at large, and how innovation can thrive much better, much faster in such an environment.
That’s such a nice way of leaving it. I was just going to say one final thing is this, our young people are out there, they have been so fantastic, and so generous to all of us older generations throughout the pandemic, and that spirit and that hope and that optimism and that kind of social consciousness, I think is so important and will really push us forward. We need to respect that, and we need to nurture that.
Wonderful, that’s a great roundup. Thank you for joining us, and I hope that you enjoy the rest of the conference. Thank you.
Thank you so much for everything and for involving me. Thank you so much.