Susan Watts – What can “Living Well” teach us about “Dying Well”?



Event Date: 26 September 2015
Barts Pathology Museum
Robin Brook Centre
West Smithfield
London EC1A 7BE


A cross-disciplinary Symposium at Barts Pathology Museum

Susan Watts (Head of Public Engagement and Communications, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre) –  What can “Living Well” teach us about “Dying Well”?

For many, “Living Well” still means the search for food, warmth and shelter to survive. In more affluent countries, it means moving into new medical and ethical territory. There’s earlier diagnosis of disease and a better chance of longer, healthier life, with new predictive tests for conditions such as diabetes and heart problems. Every year, we reach a better understanding of the human body under stress. The latest biomedical science is harnessing treatments for conditions such as sepsis that claims fragile lives in hospital every day. Rapid progress on stem cell science is taking us to the regenerative medicine we’ve long been promised. Replacement organs are closer than ever. And at our interface with machines, we are at last seeing the emergence of bionic limbs a close match to our own.

But later life is another matter altogether. Mental illness remains the most intractable challenge in our search for better health, and a challenge made more pressing as we approach the end of life. The increasing numbers of people with dementias pose practical problems with which our medical and our care systems struggle. They also pose a new set of ethical issues. How do we retain meaning at the end of life…how do we go about “Dying Well”?

For me, it seems we ignore the opportunities of what I might call “active ageing”, with an emphasis on “doing” and not just on “being”. As a society, we put a great deal of effort into ensuring that babies and their mothers thrive, and into health regimes and fitness programmes for the young and the middle-aged. And yet next to nothing is in place when it comes to delivering a Third Age that keeps people challenged, contributing and happy through the final few decades of life. But this will mean changing our expectations and the roles we act out. It will mean doing more to embed the notion of “Active Ageing”…and of “Dying Well”.


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