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We should celebrate people living longer, but the promise of longevity can only be fully realised if those years are healthy.

Healthy life expectancy (i.e. the proportion of life lived in good health) is falling in the UK, creating new challenges for individuals, society, and public services. We are ageing too young, our health-span isn’t keeping up with our lifespan.

Ageing itself is complex. It’s a life-long process, starting before birth and is vital to life and development. So, the science of ageing isn’t the pursuit of longer life; it’s about helping us live free of disease for longer.

Thanks to decades of research, we know much more about the effects of ageing. This could open a door to a new field and perhaps jumpstart a revolution in medicine similar to that driven by the development of antibiotics. We are starting to see exciting treatments that delay, alleviate, or even partially reverse age-related diseases like dementias, arthritis, cancers, and heart disease.

We are starting to see exciting treatments that delay, alleviate, or even partially reverse age-related diseases.

Recently we have seen a flurry of clinical trials of senolytic drugs that target “senescent” (worn out) cells which can cause disease. And there are now plans for a ground-breaking study to determine whether the diabetes drug metformin might delay the development or progress of many age-related diseases.

Rather than treating diseases simply on an individual basis, this new class of interventions represents a way to tackle the root causes of multiple diseases simultaneously. But we will also need to manage expectations. As always, most trials will fail to convert from mice to humans, although a few may succeed in offering major benefits. Miracle drugs are unlikely to emerge overnight, but 15-30 years is a credible timeframe to test the full potential of the science of ageing.

To help realise this, I propose an international effort to strengthen and coordinate research in this emergent field. This would allow governments to share the costs of exploratory research whilst helping spread the benefits of discoveries. Here, we can draw inspiration from international collaborations like CERN, which now hosts 10,000 scientists from over a hundred countries—all seeking new discoveries in particle physics.

A CERN for ageing research would aim to develop new diagnostics for testing interventions, better coordinate existing efforts and build an interdisciplinary cohort of scientists exploring ageing across the whole life course.

Just as researchers at CERN have licence to explore the secrets of space and time, we need to mobilise a generation of scientists investigating how time affects the human body. It is not enough to focus only on designing better devices and medicines for managing the symptoms of ageing, we also need to tackle the underlying processes which lead to disease. This is humanity’s oldest problem, and one worthy of international attention.

This article was originally published as part of Minister for the Future in partnership with Prospect. Illustrations by Ian Morris. You can read the original feature on the Prospect website.