As Benjamin Franklin once said, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Thankfully, we won’t delve into a conversation about taxes at TEDMED 2016, but we will be examining death by exploring how we age and how we plan for the end of our lives. Aging is, afterall, a process many of us will have the good fortune to experience – in 2014, 14.5% of the US population was aged 65 or older; by 2040, that age group will make up 21.7% of the population. And by 2050, the number of people around the world over 80 years of age is predicted to triple to 434 million. At TEDMED this year, we will hear from innovative scientists testing and developing drugs to help us live longer and entrepreneurs designing ways to help us plan for the culmination of what we all hope will be long, healthy lives.
One of these innovators is Nir Barzilai, a longevity scientist who is part of a team exploring the potential of metformin – which has shown protective effects against age-related diseases – to increase lifespan. Born in Israel, Nir says that his experience in military service, including as a medical officer in the special forces raid on Entebbe, Uganda that freed 102 hostages in 1976, shaped his scientific temperament. One of his more fascinating scientific endeavors is the Longevity Genes Project which is run out of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. The Project has studied hundreds of healthy people ranging from age 95 to 112, and their children. Through this research, Nir and his colleagues are trying to understand the biology and genetics associated with extreme longevity of life. Not only is the science fascinating, so too are the video profiles of the the 96 – 104 year old participants in the Project. The videos provide unique insights into the lives of healthy, elderly individuals.
Like Nir, the innovators at UNITY Biotechnology are interested in how to live healthier, longer. The team at UNITY envisions a world where you can grow old without getting the common diseases and ailments associated with older age. They have shown in animal models that removing senescent cells can reverse or prevent diseases associated with aging, such as osteoarthritis, eye diseases, and kidney diseases. UNITY is creating “senolytic medicines” that clear senescent cells selectively from the body, while leaving normal cells unaffected. The potential here is huge, and the innovators at UNITY know that they are on an uphill climb towards making history, but as their CEO and 2016 Hive Entrepreneur, Nathaniel David puts it, “if we succeed, we can change the lives of every person we know—and billions of people we don’t.”
As scientists like Nir and those at UNITY explore how we can live longer, healthier lives, the entrepreneurs at Cake, like co-founder Mark Zhang, are designing ways for us to plan for our (hopefully) longer lives and, yes, their inevitable end. At Cake they believe that the end of life is still a part of life, and the way we do end-of-life is completely broken. To address this, they are helping users to think through, share and store their end-of-life preferences which can remove a lot of the stress and uncertainty associated with end-of-life planning. Their “Cake Cards” ask questions ranging from whether or not you want your Facebook account deleted when you die, to how you envision your memorial service. At Cake, they believe that planning for the end of your life can actually provide you with insight into what is most important to you, therefore encouraging you and your loved ones to live better, fuller lives. For a topic that can be difficult to confront, Cake is working to make it more accessible.
So here’s to a celebration of long, healthy lives and a well planned-for end-of-life! We’re looking forward to learning more from these three change-makers when they take the stage at TEDMED 2016. Register to join us and hear their sure to be inspiring talks, live.