Opinion pieces on business & economic issues
Three Keywords for Anti-aging
Oct. 11, 2013
The average life expectancy in Korea reached 81.3 years in 2012, more than triple the span in 1903 and another step toward “homo hundred,” a term to describe humans living for 100 years. While longevity is a personal blessing, it leads to rising medical costs, prolonged national pension payments and other government expenditures for the elderly. In addition to the strain on fiscal allocations, the economy steadily loses workers and productivity. This will be magnified in Korea as it becomes the fastest aging nation in the world over the next 15 years.
Variations in genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors impact the rate at which the human body ages, making research and definitive explanations of aging especially difficult. Nevertheless, there are expectations that life extension science, also known as anti-aging medicine, together with lifestyle, chemistry and IT developments, will help mitigate the burdens attached to a graying nation. Research and technological development so far sum up anti-aging in three areas: daily prevention, early care and use of devices.
Daily prevention involves everyday habits and routines such as exercise. The latest hot idea in Korea for slowing down aging is Hormesis. It involves voluntarily exposing oneself to mild amounts of stress. That triggers biological responses that activate a person’s immune system. One of the biggest advantages is that injections or medical procedures are not needed.
Since being introduced in a TV program, intermittent fasting, a form of Hormesis, has become highly popular in Korea. It calls for alternating between normal eating and weekly or semiweekly fasting. The fasting stimulates the body’s metabolism and boosts the immune system. The positive impact of Hormesis on anti-aging has been proven through testing with monkeys. After having their food intake reduced by 30% for 20 years, the spinal curvature of the test monkeys was less pronounced, their fur was richer and they had lower rates of death, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and atrophy of the brain. However, as stress affects us all in different ways, negative side effects are possible. Therefore deviations must be studied in research on adequate stress levels.
Early care is actively taking steps when the initial signs of aging appear. Frailty syndrome which includes weakening muscle strength, lowered energy levels, weight loss and deterioration of the senses are no longer considered inevitable with age. Instead they are being viewed more as quasi-disorders that should be aggressively countered. If left untreated, they may lead to chronic illnesses and even disabilities that can accelerate the aging process. In Korea, the frailty rate of senior citizens (65 years-plus) is 8.8%, slightly higher than most industrialized countries. Moreover, Koreans must take particular care and caution as they have lower muscular strength than people in the West.
Use of devices refers to assistance to cope with loss or severe deterioration of motor skills and sensory functions. Initially developed for physical rehabilitation of civilians and military personnel, assistive technology has now become a vital tool to help senior citizens to regain full mobility. Through developments, traditional assistive technology such as hearing aids are transforming into higher value-added industries. Expectations are also high for the recently commercialized exoskeleton, which helps compensate for loss of muscle strength. By wearing an exoskeleton, tasks such as lifting heavy objects becomes possible and mobility become easier, allowing for more productive and even leisurely activities. The technology is expected to spread more rapidly once prices fall and advances are made in battery life, weight and convenience.
In the past several decades, leaps and bounds have been made in maintaining the health of the elderly and anti-aging research. As such, assumptions must be cast aside and instead we must embrace the belief that all things can be prevented and treated. Furthermore, aging and the necessary care must be dealt with by society as a whole, to prepare for the Homo Hundred era.
Governments must accept that countermeasures to population aging will determine the fate of the national economy and seriously consider fostering aging-based science and technology research. Aging is a combination of complex symptoms that influence the human race, lifestyles, the environment etc. therefore research in other countries cannot be taken at face value but must be modified and researched again taking into consideration the unique characteristics of each country.
Similarly, companies should aggressively explore new business opportunities attached to anti-aging. There is an abundance of market needs because the desire to live a long healthy life is a universal wish. When asked how much they would invest in their health in a year, Koreans aged between 20~59 said they were willing to spend an accumulated total of US$30.5 million.
To respond to the growing demand, both government and private sector must join forces to respond to aging and foster the anti-aging industry New research into anti-aging and anti-aging technologies must be continuously monitored and more items that can act in synergy with other products must be planned and developed.
The column originally appeared in JoongAng Daily