The future of ageing

Current Project

Current in-depth inquiry

This inquiry is exploring ethical questions in relation to the role of science and technology in helping people live well in old age.

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Call for evidence analysis

The deadline for responses to the call for evidence has now passed.

We previously ran an open call for evidence over the summer of 2021. You can still download a word version of the call for evidence if you would like to read it.

Background paper

There is increasing interest in the role that biomedical research and technological innovation can play in helping people live well in old age, and in helping society respond appropriately to the age shift in the population. Such research and innovation is very wide-ranging, including developments in:

  • geroscience research, aiming to intervene in the ageing process by identifying and treating the underlying causes of biological ageing, including through a better understanding of genetic factors;
  • assistive and communications technologies to help people to stay connected and independent for longer; and/or to provide reassurance and support for families and other carers; and
  • innovative medical technologies, including the use of AI, to support earlier diagnosis and treatment of diseases that commonly occur in older age.

Developments in these various fields offer scope for important future benefits, both for individuals and for wider society, and are currently being promoted in the UK through the Ageing Society Grand Challenge. However, they also raise significant ethical questions. These need to be considered as early as possible, to minimise the risk that unexamined assumptions and approaches to ageing are ‘baked in’ from very early in the process of research and development. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has established an expert working group to explore these issues.

Particular issues of concern include:

  • how the challenges and opportunities of ageing are conceptualised – attitudes to ageing and stereotypes about ageing have a powerful influence both on the targets of research and innovation, and on the way any innovations are likely to be designed and implemented;
  • how the aims of research and innovation in this field should be prioritised – who developments are aimed at, who is most likely to benefit, and who has been involved in making those decisions?
  • ethical aspects of the design and conduct of studies, including considerations of benefits and harms, inclusion and exclusion criteria for participation, and the role of diverse older people in co-design and co-production; and
  • how concern for equity can be taken into account throughout the research process, including with respect to access to the benefits of research and innovation.

Research and innovation do not take place in a vacuum. All these research-specific questions arise in the context of wider social policy – for example in terms of:

  • the many other factors (such as housing, income, local infrastructure, and social support) that influence prospects for a fulfilling old age;
  • the many inequalities throughout the life course that significantly affect both life expectancy and quality of life in old age; and
  • questions of intergenerational solidarity and fairness.

The possible impacts of research and innovation also generate further societal-wide questions relating to where responsibility lies for enabling people to live well in older age – between individuals themselves, their families, professionals, wider society, and the state.