Oxford Today talks to the Director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing,   Dr George Leeson

George Leeson.jpg

Dr George Leeson, pictured in the Weston Library, Broad Street

As I bring coffee over to Dr Leeson (St Peter’s, 1971), I’m burning to ask him whether stem cell research will literally allow us to ‘replace ourselves’ bit by bit, extending our lives by a great span – a terrifying and exciting prospect all at once, brushing up as it does against philosophical questions about whether you’d want to live forever. 

But before we get there he explains that Oxford’s Institute of Ageing is itself turning 20 during the academic year 2017-18, so a birthday will be in order over at 66 Banbury Road.

I confess scant acquaintance with this institute – seemingly one of a profusion of specialist research centers that have sprung up in recent decades, to confuse those who think of Oxford as a couple of dozen faculties plus law and medicine and maybe the Ruskin School of Art.

‘It’s very unusual for having a global perspective,’ says Leeson. He adds that the whole subject of population ageing has tended to be hijacked by geriatric medicine on the one hand, and by economists and pension talk on the other. And it tends to be bound by national and local considerations. He’s more interested in the big issue, such as societal reality and perception about what it means to be ‘old’, our real life prospects, and what it all means now and in the future.

As if dropping a bit of human catnip into my white Americano, though, he smiles while noting a word new to me, ‘pluripotency’ – the ability of cells to become other cells, potentially growing to replace a worn out organ with a new one. ‘Some people think we could live to two or three hundred years…’

The plain good news is that we already live a lot longer than we used to, Leeson says, showing me a graph.

‘We have 160 years of global mortality data. The reality is that for every decade across that span, we have on average added 2.5 years of life expectancy.’

Life Expectancy.pngThe dips you see reflect the two world wars, the dreadful consequence of the first plain to see.

North Korea aside, I suggest that there might be quite a few adjustments down the road, if climate change progresses as predicted, but that’s not Dr Leeson’s point.

‘We have names for all the other bits of life, zero to 65. During that time you’re something. After that time you’re ‘old’. Yet that’s fundamentally inconsistent with reality. These are not incontinent and bedridden people for forty years. But the perception is ’old.’ He reminds me that the first pension in Britain was in 1905, and it only kicked in at the age of seventy at a time when people on average died in their fifties. 

‘Even the Office of National Statistics is now saying that today’s children are destined to hit 100. Where’s the limit to this increase and what are the implications?’

Dr Leeson cites a survey carried out by the Institute, that far from restricting itself to the UK or even the OECD, spanned twenty countries, some African.

‘It was surprising how across the board, people were saying, ‘I’m far too young to be retired, I want to carry on contributing.’

Another trajectory of our discussion turns on the less palatable matter of how we care for the ageing when health begins to fail. Leeson laughs as he refers back to a Charlie Chaplain film about a robot that feeds him, with attendant mishap and comedy. But ‘caring robots’ are becoming a reality already in Japan and beyond. A therapeutic robot disguised as a baby harp seal called ‘Paro’ has caused a sensation (YouTube videos, if you search under ‘Paro seal robot’). I laugh too, but Dr Leeson says the results have been astounding, the robots having a profoundly positive impact on adults suffering from dementia.

I suddenly realize at this moment in our discussion that the biggest reason why there aren’t more Institutes of Population Ageing is because collectively none of us want to reflect overly on our mortality, and that the subject remains taboo, at least in the West.

Dr Leeson leans in and tells me about a close relative who, when she died, was given a death certificate on which he insisted the cause of death be described as ‘old age.’ In other words, another problem we have is the deception of medical technology – the idea that everything can be fixed, and that when time runs out altogether you can only die from a named condition or illness that otherwise could have been mended or addressed, were the NHS funded just a bit better than it is. In other words we delude ourselves. He cites former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway’s book The Last Bus as an excellent reflection.

This is the moment at which I press Dr Leeson to come clean and tell me if I might live to 300 because of pluripotent stem cells that could be set free to regrow or recreate bits of my anatomy as they wear out. Is this science fiction or is this real, I ask?

‘It’s real - it’s already happening…’ But leaving me hanging on a thread, he suggests that I go and meet Professor Paul Fairchild at Oxford’s Stem Cell Institute. 

Some students who debated the question ‘Would you want to live forever’ with Dr Leeson quickly alighted on some themes. One young man said he’d think about having babies at 80. Another noted that the legal system would have to redefine ‘life sentence.’ And so on. 

But for now, says Leeson, it would be great if we could get our heads around dying, and living productively to a ripe old age – two issues that aren’t mutually incompatible but which are subject to much misunderstanding.

Portrait by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse; graph by Leeson, G. (2014) ‘Future prospects for longevity.’ Post Reproductive Health, 20 (1), 17-21.

The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing was established in 1998 to establish the UK's first population centre on the demography and economics of ageing populations. It aims to undertake research into the implications of population change, doing so with demography at the centre of a multi-disciplinary approach spanning Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe, including playing host to the Population Networks AFRAN (Africa) LARNA (Latin America) EAST (Central and Eastern Europe).