Longevity focus should be on good health not just lifespan, Saudi health chief says

Experts working on ways to cut age-related diseases around the world

Princess Dr Haya bint Khaled was speaking about longevity science during Abu Dhabi Healthcare Week. Victor Besa / The National
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Longevity science is fast becoming a cornerstone of the world we live in, as average life expectancy rises alongside a decline in birth rates globally.

It was a key topic of discussion at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Healthcare Week, which concluded on Thursday, where The National spoke to Princess Dr Haya bint Khaled.

As vice president of research for Hevolution Foundation, a global non-profit organisation based in Riyadh, Princess Dr Haya said that while extending life is a core goal, increasing the number of years people live in good health is equally, if not more, important.

If we can increase one year of good health, we could potentially save almost $40 trillion in healthcare costs
Princess Dr Haya bint Khaled

Hevolution Foundation is a first-of-its-kind global non-profit that provides grants and early-stage investments to incentivise independent research and entrepreneurship in the emerging field of healthspan science.

In the past 18 months, Hevolution has allocated nearly $300 million.

Established under royal order, its brings together the best experts from around the world to solve humanity’s most pressing challenge: unhealthy ageing.

Hevolution also has a North American centre and an annual budget of up to $1 billion.

"It's not about lifespan, it is about healthspan," Princess Dr Haya said.

"Currently, the global average life expectancy is 72 years, but data shows that 10 of those years are lived in poor health. Our goal is not merely to extend life but to ensure that the additional years are healthy and productive."

"The organisation focuses on extending healthy lifespans for the benefit of all humanity. So for us, we're looking for a long-term impact on health care," Princess Dr Haya said.

A focus on healthspan

She explained the distinction between life expectancy, the number of years you live, and healthspan, the number of years you live in good health.

"Hevolution Foundation aims to understand why these 10 years of poor health exist and how we can reduce them," she added.

"If we can increase one year of good health, we could potentially save almost $40 trillion in healthcare costs. Longevity refers to the total number of years you live, but our focus is on the number of years you live in good health.

"Everyone today is focusing on how to live healthier. It’s not about individual companies competing but about collaborating, speaking the same language, focusing on the same mission and allocating the right funds to the right places."

Access for all

The Saudi-backed foundation focuses on three main areas.

"First, how do we develop drugs that can decrease age-related diseases and eventually increase healthspan? Second, how do we develop tools and technologies that can expedite the development of drugs? And third, how do we ensure we democratise and provide these drugs to all? These are our objectives," she said.

The plan is to achieve this objective through four key pillars. The first is how to fund science and medicine that focuses on ageing specifically, an area in which Hevolution Foundation has allocated $300 million to date.

"We have supported more than 170 researchers across the globe, launched multiple grant initiatives, and I’m proud to say we have also started funding Saudi scientists," Princess Dr Haya said.

"Last year, we funded almost 11 scientists and we’re launching another round this year. We also created postdoctoral programmes for Saudis in geroscience."

The second pillar is impact investment, which targets the fight against age-related disease.

"This year, we made two investments targeting specific pathways related to age-related diseases. We are not focusing on specific diseases but on decreasing multiple diseases simultaneously because the ageing process involves multiple diseases at once."

The third pillar is medical initiatives, which focus on ageing as a treatable process, compress the timeline of drug development and increase accessibility to medication.

"These initiatives focus on informing patients about their health services and recommending interventions to prevent the development of age-related diseases," Princess Dr Haya said.

As for the fourth pillar, Princess Dr Haya said the team is working on a research initiative that will be announced at the end of the year. This will be focused on extending lifespan.

"For us at Hevolution Foundation, we focus our funds on early-stage healthcare research and impact investments," she said.

"These investments are long-term and require extensive observation and research but, if successful, their impact can be enormous. We believe that allocating funds in these focus areas is key to developing the field and enhancing health care."

Away from the medical jargon, research and science, her advice is simple: "We need to take care of our health by eating properly, exercising and sleeping well. It’s also important to monitor our health regularly because early indicators can help prevent age-related diseases."

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Updated: May 22, 2024, 10:51 AM