After a ramshackle journey on the London underground I stumbled out into the streets of Westminster. Having abandoned my goggles and lab coat in Norwich; I tried to suppress the feeling of being a small girl dressed in her mother’s work clothes, as I wandered passed the round face of Big Ben and the illustrious Palace of Westminster. I was later to learn that part of this building, Westminster Hall, has seen 1000 years’ worth of British history, including the coronations of countless monarchs and the grizzlier sentences of Guy Fawkes and King Charles I, both drawn and quartered. This did not ease by sense of smallness.
My task whilst here was to join the team in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and, specifically, inform Parliamentarians about the biology of healthy ageing by delivering a four page briefing. This I would research, write and publish in the space of my three month policy internship. It seemed as far away as possible from the leafcutter ant colonies I tended as part of my PhD up at UEA and the endless sequences of A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s of bacterial DNA which constituted my normal reading material.
Despite all of this, it has been a task I have relished. I was given a free reign on who to contact, who to talk to and what to read. Early on in the internship I travelled up to Newcastle to hear about the molecular causes of ageing - essentially an accumulation of cellular damage and lack of repair which occurs over the lifespan - gradually leading to a loss of body function and, ultimately death. This loss of function also contributes to the onset of diseases like Dementia and conditions such as frailty later in life, begging the question, how can keep our cells ticking happily?
The answer, as I found out at the University of Southampton, may partly lie in maternal lifestyle choices. It turns out that the lifestyle choices (such as smoking, diet and exercise) your mother made during pregnancy, and even preconception, can alter the level to which your own tissues function and your resilience to challenges later in life. These impacts can then alter the rate at which you experience functional decline with age and your risk of age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
I quickly found myself vowing to eat more oily fish and spinach. However this lasted all of a week, before I was back on the usual diet of fig rolls, pasta and crumble. We are now beginning to recognise just how difficult it is for people to make lifestyle changes, particularly when things like fizzy pop and chocolate are so available, tempting you at eye level as you queue up in Tesco. I spent an interesting afternoon in Public Health England (PHE) who have recently introduced a sugar reduction programme. This aims to help us by changing what we are exposed to. PHE have challenged industries to cut sugar content in products by 20% by 2020. It is hoped this will contribute to a reduction in obesity, a major risk factor for age-related diseases and functional decline. If the target is achieved we could see a loss of two-hundred-thousand tonnes of sugar removed from the UK market; and possibly similar outcomes to the grievous loss of two jaffa cakes per pack.
My work at POST has thrown up new insights, for example, I was completely oblivious to the blood transfusion trials taking place in the U.S., whereby 35 year olds pay to receive the blood plasma of 16 year olds in the hope that their ageing cells will be rejuvenated. Surprisingly, this seems to work, although sets up the vampiric possibility of a black market of young blood. I was also completely ignorant of the hairdressers in the basement of the Palace of Westminster. Unfortunately (?) I had mine done before I came…
The next stage of my internship will be to finalise the briefing, receive feedback from contributors and finally to publicise it, with the hope that it will inform parliamentarians, even those with no biological background, about the policy issues involved in promoting healthy ageing. This is particularly timely given the fact that life expectancies are higher than ever before and more and more people are suffering from multi-morbidities in old age. Even the those ancient Westminster buildings seem in need of some anti-ageing therapy, with Big Ben currently shrouded in scaffolding and silenced until the New Year. I will then return, slightly bewildered, to my spritely bacteria in the lab.