By Sarah Bell, British Science Association Media Fellow


We hear a lot about the aging population. Talk of the rising costs of health and social care, reduced income tax revenues and pensions deficits can seem like a distraction from the actual experience of getting older. ‘How will we live the later years of our lives?’ is a question that some prefer not to contemplate, but if we are lucky it is unavoidable. Perhaps of greater concern for many is the question ‘how can we help our elders to live well into old age?’ And those who have been fortunate to reach later life may ask, ‘what can we do to improve or maintain our wellbeing?’

Science can help us some way along to answering these and other questions about the latter years of our lifecycle. Aging was a theme at the British Science Festival this week in Bradford, with good news and bad.

How long have we got?

First things first. We are all going to die. Probably before the age of 120. Dashing hopes for immortality, Dr Tilo Kunath from the University of Edinburgh told the Festival “there could be a genetically modified human in 100 years time that could live past the 120 age limit”, but for all of us alive today, death is in our genes.

The only known method to extend the lifespan of mammals is caloric restriction – that is to eat less. Tilo pointed out that the oldest people currently alive lived through the Great Depression and other lean times. With obesity and associated illnesses on the rise it is possible that we are close to the peak of record lifespans. We may see relatively fewer very long lived people in the near future.

What about our health?

Prof. Anthea Tinker from Kings College London had some bad news about health in later life. More than two-thirds of people over 75 have a long standing illness. Older people are more likely to suffer from depression. More than 5% of people over 65 and 20% of people over 80 are living with dementia. Matt Murray from the Alzheimer’s Society told the Festival “in the UK there are around 850,000 people currently living with dementia. By 2050 this is forecast to increase to two million”.

Anthea Tinker warns that we shouldn’t generalise about older people. Things are generally worse for women, who are likely to get sick, suffer from arthritis, and be widowed. On the up side, women are better at making and maintaining friends throughout their lives, which helps provide social support as they age.

People with dementia and their carers also have very diverse experiences, and the Alzheimer’s Society has been a leader in developing research that draws on their expertise to inform and drive science. Asma Akhtar, who cares for her grandmother, collaborated with Dr Sahdia Parveen from the University of Bradford. Their research showed that family carers in the South Asian community felt more obligated to care than white British people, although they had similar levels of willingness.

'With an aging population we need to not just think of the individual, but also society” Anthea Tinker told us.

How can we stay active?

Focussing more on social and cultural factors in later life was also a key message from Dr Emmanuelle Tulle, a sociologist from Glasgow Caledonian University. Emmanuelle is co-Recorder of the Sociology and Social Policy Section of the British Science Association and chaired a session on physical activity in later life.

Physical activity can help improve health and wellbeing at any age, including in later life. However, Emmanuelle is keen to point out that asking people “to pick up exercise as you grow older is a challenging proposition”. Dr Rylee Dionigi from Charles Sturt University in Australia has characterised three types of people who exercise in later life – continuers, rekindlers and late bloomers. Most older people who exercise are continuing or rekindling a habit they developed earlier in life. The smallest group are those who take up exercise for the first time in later life.

“In older life you have to surmount new challenges about the appropriateness of exercise”, Emmanuelle told us. “Going out for a run or a walk on your own, or going to a gym full of younger people and being surrounded by images that don’t reflect your circumstances” discourages older people from formal exercise routines.

This is why Emmannuelle thinks programmes should focus on a wider range of physical activities to suit the needs of older people. “Start with asking people what they want to do to make their life more meaningful and interesting. Physical activity can take the form of a theatre workshop or a tea dance”, she says.

Dr Sarah Bell from the University of Exeter agrees. Her research on how people use outdoor spaces showed different motivations for physical activity. Getting out in nature, spending time with family on outings, and gardening provide meaning in people’s lives and help them to stay active.

Providing a range of services to give older people meaningful opportunities for physical activity is increasingly difficult as local authorities face funding cuts. Emmanuelle Tulle’s message to policy makers is that “we need a panoply of initiatives to make sure that people will come into contact with a range of things that might grab their attention and might inspire them to continue to be active”.

Can older people enjoy a drink?

As young people in Britain are tending to drink less alcohol, research and policy programmes are focussing more attention on older people. Clare Holdsworth from Keele University told the Festival that people aged 65 and over drink more frequently than the rest of the population. The over 65s and the 16-24s both have the highest proportion of non-drinkers compared to other age groups in the population.

Older people who drink tend to have higher levels of education, wealth and self-reported health than non-drinkers. This does not mean that drinking is good for you. “People in poor health are more likely to decrease or stop drinking”, explains Claire. This is what researchers call the ‘sick quitter’ syndrome. Drinking in later life is more likely to be an indicator, than a cause of good health, economic and social circumstances.

What about the future of aging?

Medical science can’t solve all the troubles of old age, but it can help. Tilo Kunath is convinced that we will see preventative medicines for dementia and other diseases. He is an expert on Parkinson’s Disease, and told us that these medicines will “prevent the misfolding of proteins that cause many signs and diseases of aging”.
A clear message from the Festival is that we need to think of later life as part of our entire life cycle, and in the context of families, society and culture. Scientists, social scientists, older people and their families and carers were all part of the discussion this week in Bradford. This kind of partnership and sharing of data and ideas will help inform future research, innovation and policy to improve wellbeing for everyone in later life.

Dr Sarah Bell is a 2015 British Science Association Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and she was placed at Sarah is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering and director of the UCL Engineering Exchange.