Research dispels old myths about aging

May 31, 2012 | Source: The Guardian

(Credit: Stephan Czurati/Wikimedia Commons)

Professor Tom Kirkwood has demolished a string of misconceptions about the aging process with a groundbreaking study into the health of more than 1,000 older people in the 85-plus generation.

His study, the largest of its kind ever undertaken, has proved revealing on several fronts:

  • Life expectancy is increasing by about two years every decade.
  • People in the 85-plus range are generally much happier, and more independent, than is generally realized. Remarkably, 80% of a group carefully selected by the Kirkwood team — a fair sample of the UK population of this age — need little care. Around the same number rate their quality of life either good or excellent.
  • On the downside, 20% need either regular daily help or critical 24-hour care.
  • While the most recent analysis showed that the number of people in the UK aged over 80 to be at 2.6 million, by 2030 the figure is likely to jump to 4.8 million — and one in five will need regular care. Kirkwood’s team, at the world-leading Biomedical Research Centre in Aging at Newcastle University, estimates that this will lead to an 82% increase in the demand for places in care homes, with an additional 630,000 older people needing accommodation.

Tracking activities

Kirkwood’s project is comprehensively tracking the activities, and well-being, of people once considered very old. Known as the Newcastle 85+ Study, it began in 2006 when more than 1,000 85-year-olds, from Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside, were carefully selected from all social classes and backgrounds through GP practices.

Kirkwood explains: “What we now know is that the genetic factors that influence your longevity are not genes that measure out the passage of time; the reason we age and die is because, as we live our lives, our bodies accumulate a great variety of small faults in the cells, and the molecules that make up the cells in our body — so aging is driven by this accumulation of faults. The genes that influence longevity are those that influence how well the body copes with damage, how aggressive our repair mechanisms are; they’re genes that regulate the house-keeping and maintenance and repair.”

Official longevity forecasts have proved wide off the mark. Until relatively recently, he recalls, all the best brains in the world were forecasting that life expectancy would stall. “UN forecasts of 1980 predicted it was going to bump into a ceiling and stop increasing next week, but it didn’t happen; [it] carried on increasing pretty much as before.”

Why? “Something profound had changed … we were reducing the deaths in the early and middle years of life; we were reducing deaths around people who were very old — 80 and over — and those rates are [now] less than half what they were in 1951, the year I was born. This presents a really important challenge: to understand what life is like for the growing numbers of older people. We really want to understand something about the factors that influence the personal trajectory of health into old age.”

Of course, this has huge implications for the cost of caring. Revealingly, in tracking 17 activities of daily living among survey participants, researchers found that men fared better than women; a third managed all 17 without help, compared with a sixth of women. Although women live, on average, five to six years longer than men, the study has found that their disabilities become greater with age.