This was the question posed at Cafe Scientifique, at The Royal Society tonight.

The speaker was Dr Matthew Piper, from the Institute of Healthy Ageing, University College London, who initially spoke about his research, which was then followed by an open discussion with questions.

Dr Piper’s research focuses primarily on the effects of nutrition on healthy ageing. First, he gave us a very comprehensive, and understandable, overview of where the hypothesis for his work originated.

The process of biological ageing appears to result from the (complex) interaction between our genes and our environment. Manipulation of environmental factors, although intuitive (for example lifestyle and cigarette smoking), does not appear to consistently influence longevity, and it seems increasingly more likely that genetic predisposition is the key. In 1977, a study in worms first demonstrated that a specific genetic mutation increased lifespan.

Research since then suggests that levels of insulin signalling seem to influence the process of ageing. The most accessible and realistic way of advantageously influencing these levels is through dietary intervention, specifically caloric restriction (it also appears that protein restriction is beneficial, but this may be specific to some amino acids, the details of which are currently unclear). Thus diets, such as the currently popular 5/2 diet (five days normal eating, two days restricted eating/fasting) that cut back significantly on caloric intake appear to turn off pathways when you do not need them (this applies to adults only, not children). A small amount of nutrients then appears to maximise the efficiency of the signalling pathways, without overloading them.

This, my reductionist summary, appears to be the scientific basis to current research that explores the biological causes of ageing, rather than ageing itself. The rationale appears to be that an understanding of the biology will help, not the symptoms of ageing per se, but the illnesses that partly, but not inevitably, define the process.

The science is fascinating, and I suspect I was not alone in the audience as I considered what I can do to positively influence my own ageing process…

However, I do have an issue with the medicalisation of ageing. To me, it is a natural and inevitable part of living beyond a certain biological age. Tonight I was confused at times as to whether we were talking about longevity (and I am not convinced of the value of this) or about ultimately decreasing age-related morbidity. Little was mentioned about quality of life.

I also worry that, given the fact that the elderly often feel invisible and neglected in society today, turning our attention to increasing lifespan may distract us from the non-medical issues that face our ageing population, such as isolation and social vulnerability (

My question following tonight’s most fascinating discussion is not whether growing old is an illness. Instead, I turn to the issue of increasing our lifespan, and question why that might be a good thing…