Can an Aging Population Stay Healthy? Two Global Funders Hope to Unlock the Secrets of Resilience

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The United Nations considers the ability to live longer to be one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Since 1900, the global average human life expectancy has more than doubled, from age 35 to more than 70 in 2019.

But adding years to life is one thing, and adding life to years is another. Healthy Life Expectancy, or HALE, has not kept pace. Nearly half of adults over 65 live with at least two age-related, long-term comorbidities, such as diabetes, arthritis and hypertension. At age 80, that number rises to 80%. Clinical frailty, which brings greater vulnerability and reliance on others for cognitive and physical activities, can quickly tip the scales on quality of life and independence.

But aging doesn’t always bring about these bad outcomes. Many people enjoy good health for most of their lives and bounce back from setbacks easily. Understanding how some people maintain that biological resilience could create new paradigms for extending the intersection of health and lifespan for larger numbers of people.

Wellcome Leap and Temasek Trust recently joined forces to address healthy aging with a three-year, total $60 million Dynamic Resilience Program. It’s aimed squarely at increasing healthspans by examining how biological factors of resilience can be sustained in the face of declining biological maintenance systems.

Here’s more on what’s at stake, and the initiative’s goals and partners.

One global problem

Advances in medicine and public health have created a world in which people live longer. By 2050, the number of people over 65 is projected to be 1.5 billion. The number of those aged 85 and above is expected to triple.

But as global populations have aged, so has the problem of sustaining good health. The dynamics have prompted a whole-of-government, whole-of-society response by the United Nations, which launched the U.N. Decade of Healthy Aging in 2021, a global collaboration that situates interventions within the larger framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The development of anti-aging therapies is robust, and has already drawn many millions in investments. Missing is qualitative, predictive and reliable data on the biomarkers and mechanisms of resilience and frailty, and how they affect individual outcomes following stress events.

Now, these two philanthropies are partnering on a program to gauge how dynamic resilience can boost healthy aging worldwide. Work will examine how the body’s ability to adapt to stressors and heal can help people regain equilibrium after disruption.

Two partners

Temasek Trust and Wellcome Leap are cofunding the initiative. Wellcome Leap was established as a spinoff nonprofit in 2020 by the world’s largest health research philanthropy, Wellcome Trust, with $300 million in funding. Its mandate is to scale “bold and unconventional programs” that can deliver scientific and technological breakthroughs during a five- to 10-year span. It solves problems collaboratively by involving top multidisciplinary teams from business, academia and philanthropy in life science and engineering problems that can’t be cracked alone.

The other partner, Temasek Trust, was established by Temasek Holdings in 2007, and is a steward of philanthropic assets. It disperses funds to beneficiaries like the Temasek Foundation, which delivers community programs. Owned by the government of Singapore, Temasek Holdings has a portfolio recently valued at $403 billion. Together, the trust and foundation are acknowledged leaders in Asia-Pacific philanthropy.

Temasek Trust CEO Desmond Kuek said that the commitment to the resilience program exemplifies its goals to catalyze sustained positive impact with like-minded partners, and the idea that collaborative philanthropy is key to meeting global challenges like climate change and global health — complex areas that cannot be “tackled by any one organization.”

Three years, three goals

Current research provides “reasonable predictions” of statistical outcomes following stress events, but lacks data for individual outcomes. The Dynamic Resilience program has three goals that it hopes will help find reliable biomarkers for resilience and frailty in clinical trials.

They include identifying underlying biomarker signatures of resilience to predict individual health outcomes after a stress event, an increased understanding of the root causes of frailty and resilience on biological systems from cells to whole organisms, and conducting specific targeted trials testing the ways in which biological resilience can be improved when at-risk people face predictable stressors like surgery.

Global in scope, its measures and models are expected to yield a body of knowledge that will fill important gaps, allowing more effective interventions. 

Specifically, the program hopes to reduce frailty progression caused by knowable events like surgery, and unknowable events like a fall, by at least 25% versus control groups. If successful, that translates to protecting more than 75,000 adults in the U.K. alone — and 87 million older adults globally. 

Bouncing back

Successful outcomes could lead to universal answers to a universal problem. “We all share a desire to be healthy and live independently to our last breath,” said Dr. Regina E. Dugan, CEO of Wellcome Leap. “Measuring, supporting and maintaining robust levels of dynamic resilience can help humanity realize that.”

The call for abstracts and proposals is currently open to all global researchers and developers. Click here to begin the process.