38. What is Geroscience? Dr. Felipe Sierra, International Advocate for Geroscience, Explains.

Published October 20, 2021

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Show Notes

Dr. Felipe Sierra is an internationally known research leader and advocate in the field of geroscience. He is also the former director of the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Aging Biology. Alliance for Aging Research President and CEO Sue Peschin talks with Dr. Sierra about geroscience and the upcoming Euro-Geroscience conference, which he is chairing.

Learn more about the conference, taking place March 24-25, 2022 in Toulouse, France: http://www.euro-geroscience.com.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hi everyone. And welcome to This is Growing Old, a podcast from the Alliance for Aging Research. I’m Sue Peschin, and I serve as president and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. I’m really excited today to introduce our guest, Dr. Felipe Sierra, who is an internationally known research leader and advocate in the field of geroscience. He is also the former director of the National Institute on Aging’s division of aging biology and the chair of the Euro-Geroscience conference, which you’re going to hear a little bit more about today. Dr. Sierra, thank you so much for joining us on This is Growing Old.

Felipe Sierra:

It’s a pleasure to be here, Sue. Thanks for inviting me.

Sue Peschin:

Absolutely. So, Dr. Sierra, as I mentioned, you’re chairing the Euro-Geroscience Conference next year. First of all, what is geroscience?

Felipe Sierra:

I get asked that question a lot. It’s a very simple concept actually, it’s something that we all know and we have known forever, which is that aging is by far, and I mean by far, the major risk factor for all chronic diseases. So basically you can have all the genetic predisposition you want, all the environmental factors that you want, you’re not going to get the disease until you’re old because it’s the failing of your system that leads to the appearance of the diseases. So the concept of geroscience is simply recognizing that fact and therefore promoting the idea that if we address aging rather than addressing their specific pathophysiology of specific diseases, we’re going to get a bigger input in our health. We’re going to be able to attack multiple diseases at the same time because we are attacking the root cause of all of them. So, that’s geroscience.

Sue Peschin:

Now I understand that people often think geroscience and the biology of aging are the same thing. So let’s clear the record, what’s the difference and why does it matter?

Felipe Sierra:

It matters and it is different. So as you mentioned, I was the director of aging biology, so I have nothing against that, and it’s what I did all my life as a researcher myself. Actually, there’s a more complicated situation between geroscience and geriatrics. People confuse those as well. So basically there’s a continuum between aging biology, geroscience and geriatrics. So geriatrics is taking care of old people. Geroscience is using what we learn from aging biology to avoid people getting sick. I always joke that my goal in life is to put all geriatricians out of a job. It’s not going to happen, we’re going to need geriatricians, but the theoretical goal of geroscience is that it’s a preventive approach. So if successful, in theory we should not get sick with age or we should get sick very late just before we die.

Sue Peschin:

Okay. Well, tell us a little bit more about the Euro-Geroscience Conference next year, when it is, where it is and what you’re hoping to accomplish at the conference.

Felipe Sierra:

So what it is, it’s a mix actually. So in 2019, before the pandemic struck, I organized a series of seven geroscience conferences all over the world. So I had them in Israel, in China, in Singapore, Spain, et cetera. And those were quite successful. They were quite a lot of fun, to be honest. And one of them was in Madrid and it was dubbed the first Euro-Geroscience meeting. So after that, and during the pandemic, I relocated myself from the US to France. So to me it was obvious to take over from the first geroscience to make the second year geroscience as a way also of introducing both ways, introducing the gerontology and geroscience community to what we’re doing here in Toulouse, which is actually quite exciting, and at the same time, introducing the people in Toulouse to real leaders in geroscience. Because, to be honest, there’s not much at geroscience going on in here. I’m pushing for it and working on it, but currently there’s not that much.

Sue Peschin:

Okay. And when is the conference next year?

Felipe Sierra:

[inaudible 00:05:09] You asked me that. The conference is going to be on March 24th and 25th of 2022. And I’m very proud of saying that I invited, really, top leaders of the field, and everybody agreed to come. In principle at least. We’ll see what happens with the COVID, but it’s supposed to be an in-person meeting. Toulouse is a beautiful city, to be honest and I want people to see it. So, this really top, top leadership of the field is going to be at this meeting. And we’re going to have a series of presentations, but also, perhaps more important, a series of round tables where these leaders will be discussing with each other issues of funding and how to promote the field and then where we are and where we want to go. So all of that’s going to happen over two days, the 24th and 25th. And we’re going to have some side things as well, hopefully some fun as well. Fun in any, but hopefully outside of the meeting, I mean.

Sue Peschin:

That’s okay. And also we talk nerdy at the Alliance. So we think that kind of stuff is fun too. So you previously led the division of aging biology at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health. What do you think the United States can learn from other countries in their approach to aging research?

Felipe Sierra:

Actually, the States do not do a bad job. Of course, we could do with more money, no question, that’s always the case, but how to use that money is an issue. So, for example, as you will know, one of the things I did when I was director was started geroscience interest group within the NIH. The goal of that was to promote research on geroscience without having to use more money. So what I did was I tried to convince the other institutes at the NIH that aging was important to them so they would spend some of their money on aging research.

Felipe Sierra:

But of course we need more funds. We need a more rounded approach. We need for aging and geroscience to be priority at the level of science. We have this tremendous input right now, which is great, on Alzheimer’s, for example, and we have other approaches. We have this proposal for upper age, which might not happen this time, but the idea is there. But I’m disappointed, upper age is being planned with the same old, same old approach, let’s try to cure Alzheimer’s, let’s try to cure cancer. Come on. We have to think of something else. This is a 21st century. The diseases are not the same that were there in the 20th century.

Sue Peschin:

I agree. We would love to see more funding in this area. And I think also there’s wonderful opportunity to do public private type of dynamic at NIH like they have done in cancer and mental health issues and Alzheimer’s, even involving multiple institutes, I think would be terrific in addition to the NIA. So I hope that they pick that baton up again.

Felipe Sierra:

Actually once you asked me what the US can learn from other countries. Of course, the idea that we could learn is to have more socialized medicine. So basically what happens, countries like the UK, for example, where they have this tremendous databases of people, because they follow them because they’re a centralized, that provides a source of new information that can be gleaned by researchers, which we don’t have in the States because everything is so fragmented. So, that’s one thing that we could learn from other countries, is to have a centralized database for health.

Sue Peschin:

That’s a interesting idea. Okay. So you have the inside scoop on what works and what doesn’t work to age in a healthy way. So tell us all the secrets that you know.

Felipe Sierra:

Well, I’m doing quite well. I’m 123 right now. Come on. I know no secrets. There’s no secret, we all know what works to age well is your diet and your physical activity. Not necessarily exercise, just physical activity. Just go out for a walk. You don’t have to go to a gym but move and eat. You don’t have to starve yourself like dietary restriction, no, just eat properly. And unfortunately that’s all we know that works. Now, we have a lot of promise. There’s a lot of promise. There’s dozens and dozens of potential, what we call, gerial protectors, molecules that can protect you from the ravages of aging. They have been tested in many animal models, but we’re just starting to test them in humans and only in the context of diseases, not for aging itself, that will take a long time and a lot of money to do.

Felipe Sierra:

Now, there are efforts to go in that direction, not necessarily at the NIH, but in the private sector and so on. So I’m optimistic that we will have things other than diet and exercise within the next couple of decades. Now, a danger there is that people will stop eating well and exercising. We don’t want that. We want pharmacological approach in addition to not instead of. That’s something that we have to work on at the public level, we have to make sure that works that way. But I’m optimistic that we’ll have something within the next couple of decades.

Sue Peschin:

And to your last point, if I recall, when you all did the pillars for geroscience, epigenetics was one of them. So your environment, which in part we’re not in control of, but in part we are in control of, does play a role.

Felipe Sierra:

Yes. And, as you say, some of it we are in control, some of it we’re not. In fact, there’s a lot of social economic differences on how we’re impacted by the environment. So there’s a lot. We can control how we eat and how we move and so on, poverty and lack of education and things like that, there’s less opportunity to modify. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are. And in those cases, we might need a pharmacological approach.

Sue Peschin:

Okay. So now we have questions that we ask all of our podcast guest, so I’m going to ask you. When you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Felipe Sierra:

I didn’t. Who thinks about getting old when you’re young? You don’t. But in all honestly, I never thought about it. My interest on aging came much later. What happens, you had the idea of your parents and my parents were good health and not so good health. So I will tell you one story that actually struck me not too long ago. When I was doing my post-doc in Switzerland, my mother came to visit me. And we went for walks and things like that and there was the three of us with my wife and every once in a while we had to stop by so that my mom could rest and take her little pills and so on. She was an old lady. Well, recently I calculate how old was my mom when she visited. It turns out she was 67. Younger than I am now.

Felipe Sierra:

I just turned 68 actually. So I’m not in that position. We are not aging at the same rate as our parents, there has been a big difference. I’m not ready to retire or anything, and that’s something that we have to consider, what are the social repercussions of doing what we’re doing by keeping people healthy beyond what was expected or known? So things are changing very fast. If you think about it, very fast from one generation to another, this is quite impressive and it’s going to produce social upheavals if we’re not careful.

Sue Peschin:

I think the implications are really important. Sometimes I worry that we focus too much on the downsides and not enough on the opportunities.

Felipe Sierra:

Yes. You’re absolutely right. We are always focused on frailty and deceased, things like that. There’s a lot of opportunities. And actually that’s another thing that I always say. So geroscience is a preventive approach rather than a curing approach. So really we’re focusing on health, not on diseases. We’re trying to prevent the diseases, but we’re focusing on health, we are focusing on the positive side. And that goes with my personality, to be honest, I’m a very positive person.

Sue Peschin:

I am too. I guess I totally hear what you’re saying and I agree with that, but I also think that sometimes people have views about just not wanting as many older people around. So even if they are healthy or healthier, there’s concern about that as well in terms of just churn in jobs and opportunities and there’s a lot of ageism.

Felipe Sierra:

There’s a lot of ageism. And I always answer to that question because it is a valid concern, what’s going to happen with jobs, for example, for the younger generation. And my response always is what young generation? There is no young generation. We’re producing much less kids than we used to. So actually there’s not that many young people. Globally, there’s very few. So the main concern for the younger generation is not aging, it’s actually artificial intelligence and machine learning and things like that. They had to worry about that and it’s not a worry either. It’s an opportunity again, you just train in those fields.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah, that’s a great answer actually.

Felipe Sierra:

But we do have to worry about those issues, we have to talk about it. I’m trained as a biochemist and molecular biologist, so I’m not accustomed to think about the social repercussions of what I do, but we have to [crosstalk 00:16:59] responsibility to do it.

Sue Peschin:

Okay. So the second part of my question that we ask everyone is what do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Felipe Sierra:

Who’s sold?

Sue Peschin:

Forget it, that’s not happening.

Felipe Sierra:

What I enjoy? Well, I hope that I have gained some wisdom. And because of that wisdom I have gained some respect from my peers, from other people and that is quite enjoyable actually, to be recognized as somebody who’s done something with his life. So I enjoy that. I gave my job at the NIH, a good job. Everybody would agree that that was a great job. I gave it up to try something new, to try a new adventure because I’m at an age in which I can do that. If I don’t like it, okay, fine, I’ll do something else. That freedom that you don’t have when you’re raising a family, when you’re in your mid-40s or whatever, where you can’t give up your good job just in case something else happens. So those are the things that I really enjoy about my current status. And I think that I’ll tell you how I feel about aging when I get there.

Sue Peschin:

Okay. That sounds good. That sounds like a plan.

Felipe Sierra:

Okay.

Sue Peschin:

Dr. Sierra, thank you so much for joining us today. It was wonderful talking with you and I really look forward to the conference next year.

Felipe Sierra:

Hope to see you there. And thank you very much for having me. Always a pleasure to see you.

Sue Peschin:

You too. So thanks to everyone who listened in today to This is Growing Old. Our intro and outro music is City Sunshine by Kevin Macleod. We hope you’re enjoying listening to our podcast. And I want to give a hat tip to Janelle Germanos, who is manager of communications at the Alliance and is the woman and the inspiration behind this whole program. If you’re liking what you’re hearing, please give us a review on Apple Podcasts. Thank you, and have a wonderful day.