Drugs to help people live to 150 could be available within a decade, but the social and economic consequences of prolonged life will change Australia forever, experts have told a capacity audience at the 2011 Medicine Dean's Lecture.

The annual lecture was delivered by Oxford University's Baroness Susan Greenfield, Harvard University's Professor David Sinclair, and UNSW Scientia Professor Henry Brodaty on the possibility of happy and healthy ageing. The event, which drew around 1000 people to the John Clancy Auditorium, was hosted by Alzheimer's Australia's Ms Ita Buttrose and the Dean of UNSW Medicine, Professor Peter Smith.

Geneticists such as Professor Sinclair consider ageing a condition treatable with medicines, such as the plant-compound resveratrol.

"Our bodies have an extraordinary ability to repair themselves and resveratrol is seemly able to tap into those healing mechanisms," Professor Sinclair said. "In separate studies, plant-derived compounds have been shown to activate enzymes in mice that trigger their bodies DNA repair process. Those enzymes exist in human bodies too, so the possibility of drugs that slow the ageing process is very likely within our lifetimes."

But while a fountain of youth may be within reach, there are quality-of-life concerns for patients living to 150 years with conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

"Dementia, which includes Alzheimer's, is expected to affect over one million Australians by 2050 and have a major impact on Government health expenditure. This is not a natural consequence of old age, but a disease of older people," said Baroness Greenfield, who leads a multi-disciplinary team at Oxford, investigating neurodegenerative conditions.

"And if it is a disease, there must be an answer for dealing with it. We are in an era of unprecedented life expectancy, and science research needs to ensure we live happy and healthy lives: otherwise the social and economic implications could potentially be catastrophic."

Professor Greenfield said people living healthy lives to age 150 could mean people entering second careers after 65. An older workforce would also be more knowledge-based with less emphasis on mobility and physical strength.

UNSW's Dean of Medicine, Professor Smith, used the event to welcome Professor Sinclair to UNSW Medicine in his position as Conjoint Professor in the School of Medical Sciences. While at UNSW, Professor Sinclair will establish the Laboratory for Ageing Research at UNSW to be situated in the new Lowy Cancer Research Centre.

Read the full story at the UNSW Medicine website.

Media contact: Maria Backlund, 02 9385 8656