The future of ageing

Current Project

Current in-depth inquiry

Our latest inquiry will explore ethical questions in relation to the role of science and technology in helping people live well in old age.

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Invitation to contribute to our project on the future of ageing

More people are living longer – and this has implications both for individuals themselves, and for wider society. There is increasing interest in the role that biomedical research and technological innovation could play in helping people live well in old age, and in helping society respond appropriately to the age-shift in the population. This raises important ethical questions as highlighted in the contrasting (fictional) scenarios below – and this is why we have set up a working group to look at these questions and make recommendations as to how these technologies should be used in the future.

How to contribute

There are four different options you can use to share your opinions on the technologies, and any evidence you think should be taken into account:

Who can respond?

We strongly welcome your input – whether you’re:

  • an interested member of the public of any age;
  • someone working with older people, for example in the health or care sectors
  • an academic researching these issues;
  • any kind of policymaker (e.g., in any branch of government, in the voluntary sector, in industry); or
  • interested in these issues for any other reason.

While our primary focus is on the UK, we are keen to learn from the experiences of other countries.

What kind of research and innovation?

There are developments in many fields of research that might affect the lives of older people, both now and in the future. These include:

  • developments in biomedical research, aiming to intervene in the ageing process by identifying and treating the underlying causes of biological ageing;
  • developments in assistive and communications technologies to help people to stay independent for longer and/or to provide reassurance and support for families and other carers;
  • developments in medical technologies, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI), to support earlier diagnosis and treatment of diseases that commonly occur in older age.

What kind of ethical questions do these developments raise?

Below, we set out some fictional contrasting scenarios, to illustrate some of the ethical issues that may arise in the way that these technologies are developed and deployed in the coming decades. These ethical issues are explored in more detail in our call for evidence and in our shorter practitioner survey, and we encourage you to respond to these (deadline for responses: 2 August 2021).

We’re also keen to hear any thoughts you may have in direct response to the scenarios – they have been designed to provoke discussion, and not to cover all possible eventualities. What is right or wrong with these possible futures? Are there other scenarios regarding the future of ageing, medical research and technologies you think more desirable? Please email us (we will treat these as anonymous contributions), or include your comments in your response to the call for evidence or survey.

The working group would also like to read people’s personal stories about their interaction with these technologies – whether for their personal use, or in their work with older people. If you would like to submit a story, please email us.

Fictional scenarios

UK 2040 fictional scenario 1: moving online?

Universal access to high-speed internet has transformed both work environments and the health and care sectors. The greater shift to home working makes it easier for some people to stay in the workforce for longer and be better-off when they choose to retire. However, these effects are distributed unevenly as those in more physical or front-line roles cannot benefit, leading to increased income disparities in older age. The majority of health appointments are delivered online, although the password and security systems required to logon present a problem for a minority of older users. Social care services are provided through a combination of assistive devices, robot services and compulsory digital monitoring. Regular in-person care is regarded as a premium service, available at additional cost for those willing to pay.

UK 2050 fictional scenario 2: longer, healthier life for some?

New drugs to slow ageing have been developed, significantly delaying the onset of a number of conditions associated with ageing, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia, and extending overall life expectancy. However, they work much less effectively for people who are obese – who are already more likely to experience longer periods of ill-health in old age. With pressure on the country’s finances, difficult decisions have to be made between funding the costs of the new (relatively expensive) medicines; tackling the complex social and environmental factors associated with obesity; and funding better preventative health services that help improve mobility and wellbeing for all older people.

UK 2060 fictional scenario 3: who pays?

A second generation of drugs to slow ageing proves to be much more widely effective across the population. The introduction of legislation to cap industry profits at a low level on the grounds of public health ensures that they are much more affordable than in the past. However, despite the fact that people are living healthier lives for longer, it remains difficult for older people to remain in the workforce because of a preference for younger employees. Pensioner poverty increases, as does the cost to the public sector of paying state pensions for longer. A compulsory insurance system, introduced to meet the costs of long-term care, uses different levels of co-payment from older people and families, depending on the extent to which they can prove they have followed healthy ageing advice and medications in the past.