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Gulf’s longevity sector has a long way to go

Growing lifespans call for a joined-up approach to personalised medicine, preventative care and nutrition

Gulf longevity elderly Arab Pixabay/Ridvan Selli
By 2025 those over the age of 50 are expected to make up almost one in five of the GCC population, up from one in seven in 2020

Since the start of the 20th century human life expectancy has doubled as medicine has made immense progress in fighting infectious diseases.

But while some individuals are fortunate enough to enjoy good health and mobility well into their 80s and beyond, others may experience a decline in their physical and cognitive abilities much earlier in life. 

When we discuss longevity today, we need to understand it as the ability to live a long life beyond the species-specific average age at death. 

As in many countries experiencing increases in lifespan, the Gulf states are also experiencing significant demographic changes because of increased longevity.

By 2025 people over the age of 50 are expected to make up almost one in five of the GCC population, up from one in seven in 2020.

The median age of the local population is expected to rise from 32 in 2022 to 51 by 2100.

This demographic change poses a potential burden on healthcare systems because of the rising prevalence of age-associated diseases and an over-reliance on expatriate healthcare labour.

In response, Gulf states have launched initiatives aimed at strengthening healthcare and enhancing longevity.

The UAE, for example, has the Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Center and the Omics Centre of Excellence in Masdar, focusing on the “omics” – areas such as genomics and biomics – and regenerative medicine to tackle age-related conditions.

A partnership between Deep Knowledge Analytics, a consortium of commercial and non-profit organisations, and the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park is mapping longevity and providing a reliable up-to-date database for UAE policymakers and government institutions. 

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s Quality of Life Programme, part of Vision 2030, aims to extend life expectancy to 80 years by 2030. The Hevolution Foundation supports healthspan science, focusing on the biological mechanisms of ageing. 

The median age of the GCC population is expected to rise from 32 in 2022 to 51 by 2100

Advances in stem cell research and artificial intelligence (AI) are at the forefront of these efforts. The technologies promise more personalised treatment and the potential to reverse ageing processes. 

Elsewhere, AI and machine learning are speeding up drug development, with geriatric medicine benefiting from AI-driven therapies and treatments. Scientists and medical professionals are using a widening range of AI-enabled techniques, such as “omics” biomarkers.

These track the whole molecular biology of cells, and neural ageing biomarkers using digital imaging technologies such as MRI scans, to measure age-related brain alterations.

Longevity and quality of life are also affected by lifestyle and behavioural factors, such as living conditions and socioeconomic status, activity levels, and physiological and psychological stress.

As countries become wealthier and more urbanised, diets tend to shift towards more ultra-processed foods, a phenomenon known as nutrition transition.

Countries within the GCC are well into the later phases of the nutritional transition, a shift which has substantial and discernible impacts on public health.

This has prompted governments to introduce initiatives such as calorie labelling in restaurants, increasing taxes on soft drinks and sweetened beverages, and the promotion of healthy items in restaurants and shops.

Governments have also introduced educational programmes in schools and communities,  to improve awareness of the importance of healthy eating and physical activity.

The way forward

The growth possible for those working in the Gulf’s longevity sector is huge. The GCC is well positioned to become a global innovator in developing policy to address the rapid change in demographics.

However, collaborative efforts by governments and the health, insurance and private sectors are essential to support the development of new technologies and medications.  

National policies should prioritise healthcare access and regulate unhealthy practices such as smoking and poor nutrition.

Urban planning should focus on developing pedestrian-friendly communities, improving public transport and increasing green spaces to prioritise health. 

Investment in infrastructure, particularly in digital health and virtual care, is necessary to support healthy ageing. For instance, there should be an increase in access to telemedicine, home healthcare, rehabilitation and specialised treatment facilities. 

Other things that can help strengthen the sector include patient-centred training programmes that focus on healthy ageing and longevity, addressing social isolation and loneliness, establishing partnerships with academia to gather useful insights from clinical trials on longevity treatments, and using patient data to develop customised and personalised programmes. 

Finally, the private sector in the Gulf must come forward to promote public-private partnerships and support healthy ageing and longevity-related initiatives, policies, and research in the region.

Lina Shadid is health industries leader and a partner at PwC Middle East

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