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Science and serendipity

Recently, I received the sad news of the death of a dear friend and colleague who through his example, leadership and support had helped to change the course of my career. Dr Ken Collins, a notable researcher and physician of old age medicine was instrumental in evoking my interest in ageing, at a crucial time in my life. Our meeting was as fortuitous as it was timely, a truly serendipitous moment. Through it, he began my life-long dedication to ageing science but more so, he implanted the priceless notion that we must go beyond the simple necessity of high quality research – vital though that is – and seek to generate impact, to change society in its approach, in its thinking and in its behaviour, so that genuine benefits accrue to older people.

Now, some 32 years after that fateful meeting, I can look back and attempt to gauge the difference that science has made and the contribution of fellow scientists who share those values and the precious belief that although knowledge is power, it has to be harnessed to make a difference.

We now understand ageing in a way never previously thought possible – the systematic study of ageing only began in 1976 – and that via vital social change our western societies are much better places in which to grow old. I like to measure it through the lens of evolutionary biology. From our primate ancestors to the mid-18th century, it took some 5 million years to gain a 20 year improvement in longevity – but only 250 years until the present day, to extend it by another 40 years. This astonishing advance has been brought about by secular improvement, driven by a determination to improve society and enlightened by the power of knowledge.

We now know that ageing is a life-long process and that it is influenced greatly by the quality of our environment and by the choices we make as individuals. Risk of early death has been mitigated by improved public health; by modern medicine; by wealth creation and re-distribution; by greater fairness, opportunity and equality; and by better nutrition and diet. And no less important, as science advances, we are beginning to understand the importance of social factors – the pernicious effects of loneliness and isolation on life-long health and wellbeing.

The good we do in our lives is seldom recognised through our time on earth. But the enduring principle of compassion for others, of humbly seeking to add to our collective health and wealth, is one to which we all should aspire. And that is why I will be forever grateful to the serendipity of that fateful meeting. And why now, some 30 years later, I am proud to work in the community of science that seeks to bring enduring benefits to the lives of older people.

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