We explain what ageing means, whether we can prevent or delay growing old and how ageing healthily could even lead to a cure
We are all living longer, so wouldn’t it be great if there was a pill or treatment you could take to prevent or delay growing old? Or even one to reverse ageing? Unfortunately, rising life expectancy doesn’t automatically equate to a lifespan of youthfulness. There are many who live ably and actively, well into the later years of their lives. Public figures such as Queen Elizabeth II, Sir David Attenborough and centenarian Iris Apfel are not only active and independent, but are working well beyond the age of retirement.
But, generally, an ageing population will succumb to frailty, illness and disease. So what if we could find a cure for ageing? We’ll explore what ageing is, the theories of ageing, how we can tackle it and whether a cure is possible.
Table of Contents
An ageing population
With improvements in healthcare and lifestyles, life expectancy is rising. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), a child born today is now likely to live to the age of 92. This ageing population is due to advancements in child health, like childhood immunisation, and health improvements in the older population, such as heart disease treatment. (Find out your own life expectancy using the ONS calculator.)
However, the reality of an ageing population is the need for an infrastructure that provides sufficient healthcare and support for the older generation. If being cared for by family or a care home isn’t the future we envisage, how can we continue to enjoy a healthy, independent life well into retirement and beyond? Does the answer lie in finding a cure for ageing? And are there ways we can suspend time or reverse ageing to hang onto the elixir of youth?
What does ageing mean?
To find out if there is a cure for ageing, we first need to understand what ageing is. Ageing refers to the physiological changes we experience during our life. The cells in our body decline over time. In our course Why Do We Age? The Molecular Mechanisms of Ageing, we cover the theories of ageing, looking at the molecular and cellular processes involved and explaining what happens to our bodies as we grow older.
By understanding these processes and what ageing is, we can see how to delay, prevent or reverse ageing. We can also determine what lifestyle changes we can make to hold off getting old and where scientific advances could help in offering a cure. Who knows – in the future, science could lead to immortality!
As well as molecular changes, ageing affects our bones, joints and muscles. In our course The Musculoskeletal System: The Science of Staying Active into Old Age we explain what ageing means for our bones, joints and muscles and why they function less ably as we age.
A key factor in our long-term musculoskeletal health is our everyday behaviours and choices. So knowing how to improve or prevent age-related decline and disorders of musculoskeletal tissues can be hugely beneficial in learning how best to age healthily.
This includes learning about the impact of physical activity – and inactivity – on bones, muscles and joints. Plus, the importance of food and nutrition. By tweaking these factors over our lifetime so that they have an optimal effect on our musculoskeletal system, we can control ageing by simply ageing better and healthier.
What causes ageing
Ageing is a closely orchestrated process – a process of wear, tear and repair systems in our body. Our cells get energy from food and from the air that we breathe. This process of metabolism results in toxic byproducts, which healthy cells can quickly dispose of.
However, oxidative stress is the burden put on our cells in their efforts to dispose of any toxic byproducts from metabolism. Our ability to repair cellular wear and tear depends on how well we manage oxidative stress. This is the process that is central to ageing.
By managing oxidative stress through lifestyle and dietary choices, we can significantly delay cell damage and slow down or reverse ageing.
Understanding successful ageing
Ageing research shows that there are three proven core components of successful ageing:
- Managing your health
- Personal development
- Staying involved
This definition of successful ageing focuses on inputs. It is about the choices we make to stay healthy, how we contribute to the world around us, and how we develop our own skills and abilities – at every age.
Our behaviours are the single most important factor in how we age. Of course, our physical and social environments play a part, but the diversity of ageing experiences is largely due to the choices we make.
The secrets to successful ageing
If successful ageing can control how we age and the rate of ageing, how do we achieve it? Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, offers his seven secrets of mental sharpness for healthy ageing:
- Aerobic exercise
- Good diet
- Mental stimulation
- New learning
- Control over stress
- Social engagement
- Thinking and behaving young
In addition to exercise and diet, Robertson argues that mental activity – keeping our brains active – is a key part of healthy ageing. The brain is a bit like a muscle – you use it or lose it. So, learning new things actually generates new brain cells and helps keep the brain young.
Thinking yourself young can also counteract or reverse ageing. How you perceive your age really does matter. If you expect negative things to happen because of growing old, they inevitably will. Instead, you can take control of what ageing means to you with your mindset.
Now, while we can’t suspend time, we can seemingly slow time down. Your brain is switched on by novelty and new experiences, so taking in new smells, new sights, and new sounds keeps your brain stimulated. Curiosity delays ageing. So maybe the key to ageing or reversing ageing is training your brain to think and behave differently about getting old.
How to achieve healthy ageing
In the UK, the average person now lives to the age of 81, up from the age of 77 in 2000. However, this increase in lifespan has not been matched with an increase in “healthspan” – the number of years of healthy, independent life – within our ageing population.
Our course Healthy Ageing: Concepts, Interventions, and Preparing for the Future can enable you to improve your healthspan and age healthier. So, rather than a cure or a fix, future-proofing our health could be our insurance policy for future years.
For example, learning how to assess frailty in ageing can help us explore measures to slow its onset. Likewise, simply getting on board with physical activity and nutrition for healthy ageing will improve our healthspan. Prevention rather than cure could be the solution to ageing.
Can you reverse ageing?
This idea of a healthspan and remaining healthy into old age is a topic that biologist Andrew Steele covers in his book, Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old. In his quest for a cure for ageing, Steele asks what people die of, and argues that illnesses like cancer, heart disease and stroke in older people primarily occur because of the ageing process.
He argues that cancer is not a root cause or hallmark of ageing, but rather that it is caused by several of the hallmarks of ageing. So if science can address those hallmarks, we can come up with treatments that slow down the whole ageing process and defer diseases into the future. “The dream of anti-ageing medicine is treatments that would identify the root causes of dysfunction as we get older, then slow their progression or reverse them entirely,” says Steele.
Steele’s vision is that we live longer in good health, with science helping to increase a person’s healthspan. As for that cure for ageing, he is optimistic that we are likely to have a drug that treats ageing in the next 10 years.
Ageing action plan
In the absence of anti-ageing drugs, what can we do right now? Well, the things we know slow down the ageing process are exercise, healthy eating, avoiding being overweight and not smoking. Taking care of our bodies is effectively the elixir of youth. Investing in prevention could actually be the cure for ageing.
“If we’re searching for ways to shorten the amount of time we spend in ill-health in old age, our everyday lives should be the first place to look to make change,” insists Anna Dixon, Chief Executive for the Centre for Ageing Better. Dixon argues that the focus shouldn’t just be looking for a medical cure to ageing, but rather looking for new advances that make a positive difference to people’s quality of life – to how long and how healthily we live.
Technology’s role in ageing
Now if staying curious, learning new things, and keeping mentally as well as physically active helps with successful and healthy ageing, let your curiosity explore our course, Internet of Things for Active Ageing.
The Internet of Things (IoT) includes many new digital health technologies, from apps to wearable devices to home sensors. It has the possibility to revolutionise healthcare for an ageing population. For example, a wearable device can provide both telecare and telemonitoring of the elderly.
Technology can also help us stay young and continue to be curious. In our course An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health we share how smartphones have transformed our daily lives and how they can be used productively.
The concept of smart ageing analyses the relationship between older people and technology. Smartphones are no longer a youth technology. They play a significant role in intergenerational relations and define what ageing means in the digital era.
Not only is a smartphone a useful device for helping older relatives keep in touch, connected and less lonely, it can provide mental and active stimuli, too. Add health apps, step counters and heart monitors into the mix, and smartphones can also aid us in achieving a positive healthspan and healthy ageing.
Fitness programmes for ageing
While technology helps keep the brain agile, what about our bodies? If prevention is better than cure, our course Developing Fitness Programs for Older People gives you a personal trainer’s toolkit for older adults. It revolves around understanding the effects of ageing and delivers a scheme to address that.
Aerobic exercise is one of the keystones to healthy ageing. So when developing health and fitness goals and programmes, any health issues need to be taken into consideration, along with the physical and mental effects of ageing. Learning about cardiovascular strength and conditioning, and progression programmes, can all help you to age better and healthier.
Best practice in ageing
Lastly, if we’re looking at healthy ageing and what ageing means, it’s good to see best practice. Our course Lessons in Healthy Ageing From Japan gives an insight into how to achieve a long and enjoyable life.
Japan has more rapidly become a super-aged society than any other country in the world. Approximately 20% of the present population is 65 or over, and it’s expected that by 2030, one out of every three people will be elderly.
So for a super-aged society, the concept of healthy ageing is crucial. Japan has identified that the infrastructure for healthy ageing needs to exist in the form of services, communities and policies. Their infrastructure revolves around the three core components of successful ageing discussed above – from preventative measures to enable healthy ageing through to mental activity, and community and inclusion.
Now, if you want to take control of your own ageing, refer to our course Strategies for Successful Ageing. We help you perform a life audit so that you can apply strategies for positive mental health, physical health, social engagement, and creativity.
Science suggests that a cure for ageing is both possible and imminent. However, there are preventative measures we can all take now to combat ageing. Our actions, our lifestyle choices and how well we take care of our brain and our body is ultimately the way to stay youthful.
If we view ageing as a goal to be achieved, where healthspan is the trophy, then we can take the necessary steps to achieve successful, healthy ageing. After all, anti-ageing is not about living forever, or even living longer – it’s about living a healthy, independent lifestyle for the duration of your life.