A Discussion on healthy ageing

6 December 2019


Reported by: Alex Kell EPSRC-funded Policy Intern (September – December 2019)

Cambridge academics gathered for a day of presentations and information sharing on the topic of healthy ageing. Lively discussions were centred on topics such as public health, individual wellness and the extraordinary qualities of naked mole rats.

Presentations focused on scientific findings exploring both biological and socio-economic determinants of health. Those focusing on biological-aspects of ageing included, Dr Ewan St John Smith, Group Leader and Reader in Nociception at the Department of Pharmacology, who studies naked mole rats, a eusocial rodent with a low cancer incidence that lives for up to 32 years. The study of this small mammal has the capacity to shed light onto the management of chronic pain, cancer and longevity.

Other biology-focused findings included those of Dr Björn Neumann, whose work on restoring the function of aged stem cells has found that these cells are unable to repair nerve cells in older brains, but can conduct repairs when placed in young brains. This led to the hypothesis that the stiffness of the environment dictates the ability of the cell. By blocking certain receptors of the cell, which receive input of the environment, the aged stem cells behave as if they were young again.

Approaching the brain from the perspective of social determinants of health, Professor Carol Brayne, Professor of Public Health Medicine, highlighted the inequalities between the richest and the poorest, with a high level of education correlated with a lower likelihood of exhibiting dementia. There is good news here too, however. The prevalence of dementia has reduced significantly over the past 20 years. Whilst the drivers behind the decrease in incidence rates of dementia remain unknown, possibilities include the reduction of smoking, increase in vaccinations, a social welfare system and increased access to education.

The subject of healthy diets was also examined as a social determinant of healthy ageing, with presenters focusing on both diabetes and obesity as causes of morbidity and mortality. Here, Professor Nick Wareham, Director of the MRC Epidemiology Unit, highlighted the struggle health services have to care for people with diabetes and pre-diabetes, and the role of both social and genetic determinants in prevalence of this condition. Diabetes is linked to activity levels and diet; however, the ‘thrifty gene’ hypothesis suggests that genotypes which are advantageous during times of food scarcity may also be an additional predisposing factor for diabetes in communities with an abundance of food. Given the relationship between this disease and environment, possible tools for prevention include the prevention of the proliferation of takeaway restaurants and high calorie, low cost foods; making the built environment more physically active; providing better paths for pedestrians; and gradually reducing sugar and salt within food and drink within the UK.

Meanwhile, Dr Lisa Ronan from the University of Cambridge's Brain Mapping Unit explored the relationship between obesity and ageing. The high proportion of overweight or obese adults in the UK is a cause for concern, not least because people with obesity have a higher chance that they will develop Alzheimer's. Dr Ronan showed that obesity contributed to brain ageing, highlighting that the literature finds that interventions to reduce weight do improve cognition.