Ageing research in the UK: The 10 Commandments for Healthy Ageing

Our society is experiencing unprecedented demographic change. Improvements in health care and living conditions together with a decrease in fertility rates, have contributed to the ageing of the population and a severe demographic redistribution. According to the national census of 2001, for the first time in the UK there are more people over age 60 years than under age 16 years.

However, a large proportion of people over age 60 suffer from chronic illnesses or disabilities. In contrast to the UK, in some other countries (e.g. Japan) it has been found that extended lifespan does not necessarily translate into increased morbidity.

Coping with the impacts of these demographic changes is one of the greatest challenges for the 21st century. However, aging research in the UK is largely fragmented, underrepresented, poorly coordinated and lacks adequate funding support.

In 2005, The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology undertook an inquiry, chaired by Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, to evaluate the scientific aspects and current situation of ageing research in the UK. Among other findings, the inquiry reported “the attempts at coordination so far made under the aegis of the research councils are woefully inadequate. The image we have is of a series of ill-thought-out initiatives which have long titles, short lives, vague terms of reference, little infrastructure, and no sense of purpose. A radical reorganisation is essential”.

This inadequacy identified by the enquiry and the current demographic changes were the primary incentives for convening a ‘Spark Workshop’ -a two-day meeting, in which researchers from different areas across industry, charities, government and academia, share knowledge, explore potential novel concepts, and assess possibilities for future activities.

The aims of the workshop were (1) to evaluate the future of ageing research in the UK, and (2) to formulate a vision for action.

The workshop, held in May 2006, was jointly convened by the Funders’ Forum for Research on Ageing and Older People (FFRAOP, or Funders’ Forum) – a multi-agency alliance with a remit of coordinating ageing research in the UK- and the Corporate Research division of Unilever -a multinational foods, home and personal care company with a longstanding interest in promoting healthy aging.

The 10 commandments for ageing research in the UK

It is urgent that the UK adopts an integrated, multidisciplinary approach to ageing research, which recognizes its great importance as a societal and governmental priority.

As it is identified in the House of Lords’ report, the science of ageing in the UK is unstructured, under-funded and poorly coordinated. Since the ‘ownership’ of ageing science in the U.K. is at present dispersed and ambiguous, it is essential to re-structure and organize ageing research under a clear representation that could secure the funds needed to guarantee its full development.

The efforts made for instance in Canada in the last few years, suggest that the creation of a ‘virtual’ ageing institute may contribute to create a stronger ownership and focus on ageing research, facilitate a multi-disciplinary approach to ageing science and assist young scientists to identify and develop career opportunities in the field.

However, independent to the model adopted, it is evident that ageing research in the UK urgently requires a clearly defined organisational structure to guarantee its successful implementation and the realisation of its main goal: a population living longer, healthier and happier.

These and other conclusions reached during this ‘Spark Workshop’ have been summarized in a list of ten points, which constitute the backbone of a vision for action that could help to guarantee the successful implementation of ageing research in the UK:

1. Ageing is a highly differentiated and malleable process. Therefore, the commitment must be to develop interventions that can affect the ageing process or the experience of ageing in order to extend healthy life expectancy, independence and well-being in old age.

2. Investments in aging research should be significantly increased as they are likely to produce immense gains to both the economy and society, in particular to the quality of life, productivity and self-sufficiency of the rapidly growing older population group

3. Society must recognise that improving the quality of life, of older people, including the promotion of active ageing and the eradication of ageism, is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. This should translate into an integrated governmental policy for research on ageing as a key driver of QOL improvements.

4. Ageing research should reflect the complexity of the ageing process and integrate different dimensions of research into human healthy ageing, including the biological mechanisms and the socio-economic, cultural and psychological determinants of the ageing process

5. Healthy ageing research should concentrate on early, reversible stages of pathological conditions. As many lifestyle-related chronic diseases share common pathways of early dysregulation (e.g. cardiovascular disease, alzheimer’s disease), the development of markers, diagnostic techniques and interventions that can be applied to prevent late stage disease is fundamental

6. Ageing research should build on and expand existing longitudinal cohorts. These are critical to understand longevity and must combine genetic, socio-demographic and environmental aspects. It is crucial that future efforts embrace the role of genetics in aging research given the variability of responses of individuals to drugs, nutrients and lifestyles due to different polymorphisms

7. Ageing research should pursue ‘best practice’ early interventions by creating an evidence base for translation to society, by engaging directly with its end users and, in particular, by ensuring that older people are a key reference point.

8. Research to inform the development and uptake of information technology, assistive technology and inclusive design must be implemented in the construction and design of products, homes, urban environments, public buildings and transportation systems to eradicate potentially disabling environments to functionally-limited older populations

9. The void in clear leadership, funding and representation of ageing research in the UK must be addressed. In particular, additional resources must be allocated to under-funded areas of aging research (e.g. healthy ageing) to complement existing commitments to research aimed towards end-point chronic disease

10. It is critical that an overall ageing research portfolio is managed as a single entity across the contributing disciplines, which individually and collectively enhance understanding about the determinants and interventions that affect active ageing.

Extracted from: Franco OH, Kirkwood TBL, Powell JR, Catt M, Goodwin J, Ordovas JM, van der Ouderaa F. Ten commandments for the future of ageing research in the UK: a vision for action. BMC Geriatrics 2007, 7:10 (3 May 2007) doi:10.1186/. © 2007 Franco et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0).