Here is the full transcript of Australian biologist and professor of genetics David Sinclair’s TEDx Talk: A Cure for Ageing? at TEDxSydney conference.
I believe that we’re all only given one precious life. For those of us who are really lucky to be born, it’s a life to be embraced, a life to be used for good, and a life that’s worth prolonging in good health.
When we’re all very young, we assume that our parents, and our grandparents, all our loved ones will be around forever; but then we learn that that’s not true. I clearly remember my daughter Madeleine – here she is – when she was four years old I was putting her to bed, and she said, “Daddy, will you always be around to protect me?” Man, it almost brings a tear to my eye right now: I think anyone who’s been a parent knows how this feels. And I said to her – I had to be honest – I said, “I’m sorry. One day, like everybody, I will grow old, and I will die.” I watched her eyes well up, and she gave me a really big hug.
But then I told her – I think what we all tell our children which is, “Just don’t think about it,” and so she did. But here’s my big idea: I think we’ve all done this in our lives, we all try to forget about this truth. Ironically, I believe this is preventing us from realizing the lives we could actually live. My grandmother Vera, she’s an amazing lady; she saved lives in World War II; she escaped persecution from Hungary and fled to Australia; she had a wonderful sense of humor, a love of life; and she spent a lot of time raising me; and she never wanted me to call her grandma – only Vera – because she hated the idea of growing old.
But since then, I’ve watched her grow old. She has watched herself grow old too, and she used to apologize to me for it. A few months ago, I heard that she fell over in her apartment, and she broke the top of her femur. She went straight to hospital. They operated on her. Her heart stopped in the operation. I arrived in Sydney with my son Ben, five years old, to say goodbye to her. She was there, just a shell of the woman she once was. She had a feeding tube coming out her nose. She barely knew who anybody was.
And I thought, “This thing we call aging – why aren’t we up in arms about it?” And this once vibrant woman, reduced to this; it’s incredible. This is just my story, but this is being played out every day in everybody’s family. It’s certainly not an isolated case. In fact, I don’t want to be a downer, but this, or something like it is going to happen to all our loved ones, including all of us. That’s actually the best case scenario.
So why aren’t we doing more about it? I think we all know that aging’s important. For example, the World Health Organization recently put out a report, a 32-page report saying that aging is one of the biggest problems of our generation. Unless we do something to keep the elderly healthy and productive, the cost is going to crush national infrastructures. Our way of life, our economies are going to fall. This is what the governments are saying.
But what you may not realize is a fraction of just 1% of medical research is devoted to understanding why we age, and even less is devoted to trying to do something about it. And this, to me, is a major puzzle. What I think is going on is that we just don’t like to think about it. It’s really quite weird. I noticed many of you chuckled when I was introduced.
I think we’re just ingrained to really not want to talk about it. We feel uncomfortable, embarrassed talking about extending lifespan and delaying aging. For many people, it’s even sacrilegious. I once debated the bioethics adviser to President George W Bush on national radio. His point to the audience, and to me, was aging is natural. It’s part of the way of life. In fact, it makes life worth living. What a load of bull – Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer – these are natural; and we do everything we can to prevent and slow these diseases down. Ninety-nine percent of medical research is devoted to trying to slow down these diseases, which actually, only a fraction of us actually get; whereas aging, if we’re lucky, affects all of us.
So you might ask, “Why don’t we just continue what we’re doing? Why don’t we just study individual diseases?” That’s what we’ve always done. It seems pretty good. But what you may not know is that the rate of aging is actually decreasing. What I mean by that is that we’ve developed many medicines that actually can treat part of our body, say our hearts – we’re very good at keeping our hearts healthy – but our brains still age. So we have ended up with – and just to use my grandmother as an example – a nation of elderly whose hearts are working well for example, but their brains are no longer functioning.
And this is a major problem for a healthcare system. It’s extremely, extremely expensive. What we need are medicines that will keep all of our body parts working at the same time. If we just fix one part of our body, the problem is some other part will break down: we are just switching out diseases. I don’t think this is the right way to go about it.
If you look at this graph actually, this really brings it home. We are always taught that our medicines are making us healthier for longer. That’s not true. Look at this graph. The amount of time that we are spending in good health is actually decreasing in terms of percentage. No wonder healthcare costs are going up. What we need to do, of course, is to keep us healthier for longer. So, I am not talking about living for 500 years. I see that sometimes quoted in the press. But what I am talking about is an ability for us to live into our 90s and our 100s in a healthy way and not like my grandmother who suffers.