Healthy aging - mission impossible?

19.07.2012
“Healthy aging – mission impossible?” was the title of professor Laura Fratiglioni’s speech at Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin today. After having made three points, firstly that aging is a positive phenomenon, secondly that aging historically is a new phenomenon, and thirdly that aging continues throughout life, she concluded that healthier aging is indeed possible.

The seminar, called “Aging in Europe – abyss or opportunity”, was part of the ESOF science programme focusing on the future of medicine and health. It was organized by Nordforsk and the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research, and moderated by BBC science journalist Quentin Cooper.

“Although there is still a lot to be understood, healthier aging is already a reality today,” said Fratiglioni, representing the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.  She continued: “One of the best strategies to improve old people’s health is to promote physical, mental and social activities, because the connection between body and mind is so important. During the last ten years, we have discovered that our brain continues to be plastic, and thus can be stimulated and developed, no matter how old you get.”

Unhealthy behaviour

Professor Jaanus Harro, Tartu University, Estonia, talked about the risk factors, of which procrastination is the most important. In other words, people make “unhealthy decisions” even though they know better. “We can benefit from a deeper understanding of the nature of lifestyle choices,” he said.

Longevity inevitable?

Professor David Nutt, Imperial College, London, asked whether increased longevity is inevitable. His answer was “no”, since improvements in old people’s health depend on a number of factors, such as political decisions.  His next question was:  “Can we make drugs to improve the aging brain?” After having talked about the risk factors connected to alcohol, many of which are often overlooked, he stated that it is possible to produce drugs that can enhance the functions of aging brains.

Today, drugs are licensed only if they can cure illness, and aging is not an illness.  However, the “illness focus” may be challenged in the future, opening up for changes in the regulatory system, according to David Nutt.

Never too late

Professor Mikael Fogelholm, University of Helsinki, made a point of health and lifestyle issues often being connected to young people.  “It is never too late to start focusing on healthy behaviour,”  he said.

“Walking and other normal, daily activities can be very helpful in fighting dementia.  For most people, what we consider old age seems to start in the area between 65 and 75 years, so that is a critical period for physical and mental activities.

(Text:  Dag Inge Danielsen     Photo:  Terje Heiestad)

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