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Resources: Interviews

Jack Watters is Vice President of External Medical Affairs at Pfizer, and his work on healthcare disparities takes him around the globe. He is also a great lover of the arts and believes that education changes everything.

How has science improved our understanding of ageing in the past decade or so? What breakthroughs do you regard to be most exciting in the field and why?

We have made the first steps towards understanding the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease. This has been made possible by advances in imagine technology which have helped us visualize changes in blood flow, amyloid deposition and tissue appearance associated with impaired cognition. Similarly we have gained a greater understanding of the process of aging from degenerative conditions like arthritis to metabolic impairment like osteoporosis.

Do you see any prospect in the future for radically increasing the human lifespan beyond the current 120 years or so?

The data show that babies born today can expect to live to be 100+, possibly 120. Fifty years ago that would have been unimaginable. As important as longevity is the quality of the prolonged life especially from a health perspective. If we can take a life-cycle approach to health and especially prevention we can ensure that these extra years a healthy and of high quality.

If possible, would you regard the pursuit of radical life extension as a morally worthwhile pursuit, or as a selfish individual pre-occupation with immortality?

With active engagement of older people there is an exciting opportunity to turn the increased life expectancy to good of society

In recent years, the elderly have often been portrayed as a burden on society – debates over pensions, NHS care and social care have particularly highlighted this idea. Whilst most of us would like to live long, healthy and prosperous lives, are we sitting on a “population timebomb” that threatens to overwhelm our resources?

I don’t believe this for a moment. Increased life expectancy is a cause for celebration. However, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we make the necessary social provisions to avoid the “burden” scenario and prosecute the investment in health and social support so that everyone in society benefits.

Some fertility clinics have begun to provide IVF for women well into their 50s. Critics regard the use of IVF in this way to be selfish and unfair to the child born to the older mother, while others emphasise the right of the mother to choose when she has a child. Are you concerned about women becoming mothers over the age of 50?

One of my best friends just gave birth to her second child, aged 53. She conceived naturally and delivered a normal healthy baby. She will make a wonderful mother. To conceive or not is the right of the parents and there must be no judgement associated with this very private act.

It has been said that the way we care for the elderly in Britain means that for many, their last years are “painful and meaningless”. What changes do you think can and should be made to improve the lives of people approaching the end of life?

The life cycle approach I have outlined above would help ensure healthy aging. The term last years should only have a chronological meaning and not be associated with frailty and dependence.

The recent replacement of the Strictly Come Dancing Judge Arelene Phillips with a younger woman has led some to claim that this is a reflection of a youth obsessed society? Elsewhere, concerns about workplace discrimination against older people raise important questions. Do you think ageism is a problem in our society and, if so, why and in what form?

It is evident everywhere in our society, not just in the media and other more visible forums. Ageism is especially rampant in the job market and in the practice of medicine. One important way of addressing this is the concept of ‘inter-generationality’ where generations are brought together and encouraged to interact and learn more about each other. This greater understanding and empathy can only lead to a richer, more functioning society.

Do you think society holds an accurate impression of what life is like in older age and, if not, what inaccuracies and prejudices would you like to see challenged?

Clearly not. The only people who truly understand what it means to be older are older persons. The inaccuracies are already mentioned above for example, older people are a burden socially and economically.

What contribution to society do you think older people make, and how can society better harness what older people have to offer?

First of all, older people have more experience than younger people and are a source of wisdom, knowledge, mentorship. If we can ensure a healthier approach to aging there is no reason that older people cannot remain productively engaged in society, working, paying taxes and making a significant contribution to productivity.

How would you improve upon the level and quality of interaction between the generations in contemporary society?

The intergenerational approach I suggest above is essential.


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