Health and Healthcare Systems

Medical innovation for an aging world: the view from Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the oldest societies in the world, and is prioritizing medical innovations that deliver aging people a good quality of life.

Hong Kong is one of the oldest societies in the world, and is prioritizing medical innovations that deliver aging people a good quality of life. Image: REUTERS/Lam Yik

Nancy Ip
President, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
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  • By 2050, more than 2.1 billion people will be aged over 60 worldwide.
  • As society ages, so does the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases, which harm quality of life and create societal challenges.
  • Hong Kong, as one of the oldest places in the world, is getting ahead of the curve in confronting this issue and partnering with others to share that success.

By 2050, the global population of people aged 60 and above will nearly double to 2.1 billion people worldwide. China alone will account for about 23% of those people. This demographic shift has far-reaching implications.

With age comes increased susceptibility to age-related diseases, notably neurodegenerative diseases, which affects not only patients and their families but also the broader economic and social fabric of societies. We must adapt to this reality by fostering healthy aging strategies to safeguard the well-being of our citizens, with a focus on the elderly.

The discourse on longevity has evolved over the years. It is no longer solely about extending life spans, but rather, enhancing the quality of these additional years. Nowadays, our aspiration is for prolonged lives that are characterized by vigor, cognitive clarity and the capacity for meaningful societal contributions.

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Neurological diseases in an aging world

As the brain, the epicenter of our being, preserves our identity, our memories and our engagement with the world, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases fundamentally challenge this vision and pose significant threats to the elderly. The primary hurdles to treating these debilitating diseases are late diagnosis and limited disease modifying treatments. By the time the condition is detected, it is too often already at an advanced stage, making treatment difficult — if not impossible. As the disease progresses, patients need continuous care, causing significant emotional and financial toll on families and caregivers, while diminishing their quality of life and productivity. As the number of cases of neurodegenerative diseases rises because of the aging global population, these diseases are extracting a heavier economic and societal toll and straining healthcare resources.

In view of this growing challenge, we must shift our focus from developing post-diagnosis therapeutics to promoting preventive healthcare. This necessitates significant investment in life science and medical innovation to develop diagnostics capable of detecting brain diseases at early stages, when intervention is most effective. Enhanced medical interventions that can reverse or halt disease progression, thereby lessening the burden on individuals and societies, are also essential. Promoting brain health and fostering healthy aging, however, demands a multifaceted, holistic approach.

Lifestyle modifications, such as regular physical exercise, a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, mental stimulation and a healthy social support system are also vital for preserving cognitive function and ensuring a high quality of life as we age.

How Hong Kong is doubling down on medical innovation

Hong Kong, with its distinction of having the longest life expectancy in the world, is committed to investing in biomedical innovation to enhance brain health and promote healthy aging. Recognizing the challenges of an aging population, the city is leveraging its status as a premier international financial centre to take the lead as a regional bioscience innovation hub.

With its ample funding opportunities, mature legal system, rigorous intellectual property protection, as well as geographic proximity to mainland China that offers unparalleled access to a sizeable population and rich data repositories, Hong Kong is in an advantageous position to drive cutting-edge biomedical research and development.

Moreover, the Hong Kong government, having identified life and health sciences as critical areas of economic growth and societal advancement, has also allocated ample resources to bolster R&D, talent development and commercialization efforts to foster the growth and development of a robust biomedical ecosystem.

Talent is a vital element of life science and medical innovation. Universities in Hong Kong, globally recognized for their academic and research excellence, nurture local and international talent and attract scholars from around the globe for study, work, interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange. As a leading university, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) is at the forefront of talent development. HKUST is currently in the process of establishing a third medical school in Hong Kong aimed at nurturing future-ready clinicians with strong medical expertise, rigorous scientific research training and an entrepreneurial mindset. Fostering a multidimensional skillset is essential to bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and real-world applications and turning groundbreaking research into pioneering healthcare solutions.

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Technology and medical innovation

Technology also plays an essential role in life science and medical innovation. Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics and digital health platforms are already revolutionizing healthcare processes by streamlining data collection, analysis and dissemination, accelerating the drug discovery process and improving the efficiency of clinical trials. Integrating technology with clinical practice promises to propel medical research forward, leading to transformative solutions to address the global aging challenge. HKUST, for example, is integrating AI with medical technologies to create pioneering healthcare solutions like smart sensors for non-invasive health monitoring and AI-driven clinical management and precision treatment. The University has also developed a revolutionary biomarker-based blood test that enables quick and accurate early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment that can be used across multiple ethnic groups with applicability on a global scale.

Another critical driver of biomedical innovation is collaboration, both across different disciplines and different stakeholders. It is imperative for public and private sectors to collaborate and invest in brain research on a global level. By fostering international cooperation and sharing knowledge, ideas and innovations, we can create a world where every citizen can look forward to aging with health and vitality, free from the burden of disease.

We stand at a pivotal point where today's decisions will shape the well-being of future societies. The time to prioritize biomedical innovation and brain health is now.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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