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Headlines Published on 07 June 2004

Title Research to lighten the burden of ageing populations

Western Europe, as elsewhere in the industrialised world, is facing a demographic problem – falling birth rates and longer life expectancies. But the silver generation need not be a further burden to already stretched healthcare systems, EU researchers will set out to prove.

Growing old without the pains © Source: PhotoDisc
Growing old without the pains

© Source: PhotoDisc
Advances in medicine mean that Europe’s citizens live longer than any generation prior. Heart disease and cancer – once striking down scores of middle-aged Europeans – can now be detected and treated. Yet, while this is a testimony to modern science, it is also a huge test for modern societies whose economies are placed under mounting pressure as non-working populations grow.

People in Western Europe are having fewer children and living longer, leading to ageing populations which threaten to reach bursting point as post-war baby-boomers enter retirement and start to draw on government pensions and health systems. This calls for a shift in policy and research effort from treating old age as a disease afflicting society to promoting what the EU is calling ‘healthy ageing’.

An EU-backed study, called ‘The genetics of healthy ageing’ (GEHA), will gather genetic health and lifestyle data on 2 800 pairs of siblings who are over 90 years old. The results will be compared with a control group of younger people. Reporting on this study in its March issue, Nature said: “There’s an economic incentive, as well as a humanitarian one, for trying to break the link between old age and ill health.” 

Informed not infirmed
European scientists are trying to find out, among other things, which genes govern longevity. Using the DNA samples collected, Professor Claudio Franceschi of the Italian National Research Centre on Ageing and his partners will analyse the genetic make-up of brothers and sisters.

If they can crack the genetic code for ageing, they hope to develop medicines helping people stay healthy for longer. The GEHA study is taking place across Europe at a cost of almost €9 million, just over €7 million from the Union. Previous studies, using model organisms and animals, have shown a genetic propensity for long lives. But scientists recognise that genes are only part of the whole story. The EU study will also consider the effect of lifestyle – environmental and behavioural influences – on the age that people reach. This includes whether people smoke, drink alcohol and eat fatty foods.

“There are certain families that contain several centenarians, which is highly improbable by chance,” Franceschi told the BBC. 

The study is attempting to prove what is anecdotally well established: that children of long-living parents tend to survive into old age themselves. “Not only will it help the understanding of ageing itself but it will have a tremendous impact on medicine because the genes that allow you to live longer and in good [health] are those that protect [you] from the major killers, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes,” he continues.

The EU is also backing an ERA-NET network on this subject called ‘The age of longevity’ (ERA-AGE) which will bring together research programmes and funding organisations from 14 European countries to support research on ageing. The scheme looks to help bridge the coordination gaps between national and transnational activities, thus overcoming institutional bottlenecks which can impede the take-up and spread of new knowledge in this important area.

Source:  Press sources

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • Attempts to crack the ageing code (BBC News, 7 April 2004)
  • Nature (Vol. 428, 11 March 2004, pp116-118, premium content)
  • Der Spiegel (in DE, 16 April 2004, premium content)
  • ERA-AGE PDF icon [160 Kb]

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