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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Living life to the end
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image image image Date published: 11/07/2001
  image Living life to the end
RTD info 30
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  Living longer is one thing, but how are we also going to live better? What challenges does an ageing population pose for medicine and society? What will be the economic impact? Why has death become taboo? These questions are at the heart of a number of research projects supported by the European Union.
   
     
    Today, 20% of Europeans are senior citizens. By 2020 that will be 25%. This ageing population - coupled with falling fertility - presents new challenges for society and individuals. The need to increase research on this subject was raised by Members of the European Parliament and gave rise to the creation of the Ageing key action under the EU's research programmes (see box). Very diverse fields - the life sciences, human sciences, new technologies - are involved in this complex issue which requires an increasingly multidisciplinary approach. But what is the aim?

Ageing well

'Longevity is not the point, but quality of life,' stresses Dr Anne Degrand-Guillaud, a scientific officer at the Directorate-General for Research. As a doctor with solid experience in the field, 'longevity at any cost' is of no interest to her. The important thing is to 'age well' and that is the concern of the Ageing key action for which she is responsible. (1)

It is a question of gaining a better understanding of the many factors which determine how an individual is going to age. What is the relative importance of heredity, environmental factors and mental attitude? What are the factors in healthy ageing, and what are the 'little everyday things' which permit a better life? Could younger people be more tolerant of the old? How, and at what cost, can the elderly remain as long as possible in their own homes? How can you combat loneliness? These are all questions to which researchers can provide some of the answers - and which cannot be ignored by public health strategies.

Dispelling the taboos

Finally, at the end of the road, there is the taboo of our Western societies. 'When one speaks of ageing, it refers to the end, to the time of death. Death is part of life and yet we are unable to approach it with serenity. We avert our eyes. Doctors are not trained to talk about it and nobody dares discuss it. In the meantime, in Europe we are not dying as we should,' continues Dr Degrand-Guillaud. So there could also be 'better dying'.

A growing number of people (50% to 70% of Europeans, depending on the country) die in hospital. 'But the purpose of hospitals is to treat. We should be thinking in terms of support in the home, a discreet presence which is acceptable to close family and friends.

Fifty years ago we knew nothing about the start of life. We have since learned an enormous amount about the fœtus. Today we are still totally ignorant about death.' (2)

(1) Determinants of healthy ageing and of well-being in old age
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(2) The European Commission held the 'End-of-Life Care' workshop on 13-14.12.2000 in Brussels. This multidisciplinary meeting, attended by doctors, sociologists, philosophers, public health officials, representatives of associations for the elderly, etc., raised the issues of euthanasia, pain and support for the dying.
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Contact

anne.degrand-guillaud@ec.europa.eu

Website

cordis.europa.eu/

To find out more:

Survey of the Current Status of Research into 'Ageing' in Europe, EUR 18594, European Commission, Brussels, 1999.
Report on ageing research in Europe, produced by the ad hoc committee on coordinating European research policy.

Ageing in Europe, IOS Press, Amsterdam, 1999.
The latest developments in the biomedical and medical field concerning elderly people in 11 EU countries. Publication supported by the Commission. ISBN 90 5199 382 X


Box
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One action, five parts

Part of the European Union's Quality of Life programme, the Ageing Population and Disabilities key action aims to support research which is beneficial to the health and well-being of the elderly, and to fuel the debate on public health policies and social security. It comprises five strands:

  • health-related research (Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, sight and hearing difficulties, memory problems, depression specific to very old age, etc.);

  • analysis of ageing factors (the cultural, psychological, biological and genetic factors which determine the quality of life of old people);

  • demographic and socio-economic problems (health care policies, pension management, etc.);

  • development and evaluation of technologies for senior citizens (mobility, stimulation of the memory, tele-surveillance); and

  • organisation of specific health care and social services.
 
     
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Box
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One action, five parts

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