Epigenetics research — and the implications of lifestyle-related changes in the cause of disease and aging — holds great promise.
“Only staying active will make you want to live for 100 years.” — Japanese Proverb
Some scientists believe that the first person to live to 200 years old has already been born. The main issue with just counting years on the calendar, however, is that quantity does not always equal quality, especially if you can’t be active. Modern medicine and technology can save lives; unfortunately, not as much work has gone into preventing illness as into treating it.
The data shows that as life expectancy continues to increase, people are running out of money for essentials, let alone factoring in the costs of health and care. The pension gap (between actual savings and income needs) in the UK in 2015 was already at $8 trillion, estimated to rise at 4% per annum to reach $33 trillion by 2050. If we look at the top eight global economies, these figures are $70 trillion and $400 trillion respectively, so it’s not an isolated problem. In the UK, at an individual level, this equates to running out of money 10.3 years before you die if you are a man, and 12.6 years before you die if you are a woman — on average. Can you imagine the gap if we live to 200? For many employees, financial stress is already their number one worry, and, according to Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends Study, 85% tell us that they trust their employers to prepare them adequately for retirement.
Working longer — whether it’s because you have to, or want to — could close these financial gaps if you have the right information and means, but you need to be active to do so. The fastest-growing employment segment in many developed economies is the over-55s, which means a much larger percentage of older workers are now in employment than ever before. In the UK, over-55s represented more than 50% of employment growth in the decade to 2018, a trend expected to continue in the next 10 years. It’s clear, therefore, that we need to find ways to add healthy years to life, not just years.
It’s also clear that what we have done in the past has not solved the problem. We need to enable long-term behaviour change to ensure that people enjoy better health and stay active. And that’s hard.
Many consider genetics to be the cards we are dealt. Our genes are fixed, and therefore we are left with the bad and the good that come with them. This may well be true to an extent. However, we have something that sits above the genes known as the epigenome — a network of chemical compounds surrounding DNA that have a role in determining which genes are active in a particular cell.
The study of these genetic interactions and changes is called epigenetics, which has become a field of urgent and intense research and may offer us a way of looking at how outcomes can be altered. By changing certain environmental factors such as physical activity, diet, stress and chronic pollution levels — let’s call these lifestyle interventions — your genes may start to behave differently, leading to better quality, more energetic and non-sick aging. This “active aging” allows individuals to continue to participate in social, economic, cultural and civic activities, as well as remain physically active, stay involved in the workforce and stay engaged with their pension and savings programs. Active aging, therefore, could help minimize, or even eliminate, the funding gap. Additionally, healthy older adults are less at risk of severe consequences of COVID-19.
Muhdo Health has found that by testing individuals’ epigenetics and applying specific lifestyle interventions, we can expect to see an improvement in their quality of life. Workers get the opportunity to keep working for longer, reduce fatigue and, as a result, enjoy a happier retirement with less worry about the need for care in older (chronological) age.
Many types of workers may benefit from this approach. With the help of epigenetic monitoring, adjustments can be made to workflow, stress management and nutrition — and the impact could be measured and controlled.
An employer in the building industry found that its older, more experienced workers were essential to the successful delivery of high-end projects. The continued health of this group of employees was so crucial that the employer implemented a Muhdo measure and monitor process to establish what the right working patterns and interventions should be. Once individuals had been tested and knew the steps they could take to improve their quality of life, they could set their own hyper-personalized goals and put change processes in motion.
Behavior change comes at different speeds — not everyone can fix a lifetime’s worth of bad habits overnight. But knowing how to add healthy years to your life by understanding your epigenetics may certainly help drive behavior change in a positive direction.
In addition to helping employees identify individual action plans, this employer found that it could help further by adjusting work and shift patterns to allow for more flexibility for this group of older, more experienced workers. Creating more flexibility reduced stress levels and improved engagement. This type of flexible work in later life is becoming increasingly prevalent. More than three-quarters (76%) of employees in Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends Study said that they intended to continue working in some shape or form beyond the official retirement age, and 24% planned to work fewer hours. Up to 57% of employers already offer part-time work pre- and post-retirement as a means to embrace the value of older workers, and 46% are building a pool of retiree talent to tap into. These approaches could become even more useful for everyone by adding healthy active years to the mix.
And if a simple saliva test (repeated at intervals, say, quarterly or annually) could enable a future with less back pain, fewer muscle aches and injuries, less sickness, and even improved mental health as a result of better physical health — then workers and employers rejoice!
We believe there are two key learnings to take forward:
Epigenetics research — and the implications of lifestyle-related changes in the cause of disease and aging — holds great promise. It could unlock our understanding of how an individual responds to environmental cues and acquired risk factors. It also raises profound ethical questions about the role of the employer and the efficacy of workplace programs and conditions — and their unintended consequences.
Muhdo and Mercer Marsh Benefits are working in partnership to support employers with effective health and wellbeing strategies. UKRI and Mercer work together on the Healthy Ageing Advisory Group, responsible for overseeing activities of the UK Government Healthy Ageing Fund.
Nathan Berkley, CEO, Muhdo
Cynthia Bullock, Deputy Director, Healthy Ageing Challenge at Innovate UK
Yvonne Sonsino, Global Co-Leader Next Stage, Mercer