EISF Talk: The Secrets of Healthy Ageing

Any discussion on 'The Secrets of Healthy
Ageing' is almost bound to gather a crowd, and the lecture theatre of the Royal
Society of Physicians was well stowed to hear Professor John Starr of the
University of Edinburgh (standing in for indisposed Professor Linda Partridge
of the Institute of Healthy Ageing), Professor Cyrus Cooper and Simon Denegri,
CEO of the Association of Medical Research Charities.

Professor Starr's theme was correlation
between intelligence and health in old age. 'Health', he pointed out, can be
subjective, dependent on what we regard as 'quality of life'. Do we regard
inclusion, choice, independence and enjoyment as indicators of later life
quality (as a number of ageing Down's Syndrome sufferers did in a recent
survey), or do we plump for a purely medical definition?

Common problems can
overwhelm differences, but cognitive ability does impact on ageing. We are
fortunate that the results of Sir Godfrey Thomsons' 1932 'National Survey of
Mental Ability' survive in the records of Moray House, now forming the
Department of Education of the University of Edinburgh. The Survey was
undertaken Scotland-wide in 1932, giving a snapshot of cognitive abilities
across an entire population. Tracing the remaining subjects of the test
provides an indicator of how their health has fared since, and intellectual
capacity does appear a factor (possibly the only one which can be readily
defined as opposed to material and social ones).

In addition to the 1932
National Survey, records also exist for a survey carried out in Renfrew and
Paisley in 1972, thus giving a 'mid-span' account of those picked from the 1932
Survey. At this point it might be tempting to simplify Professor Starr's
argument to the effects of 'lifestyle choices' on the health of the less intelligent,
but he clearly indicated that further research is needed and would very
probably throw up a wider range of results.

Age "successfully"

Professor Cyrus Cooper of the University of
Southampton began with a slide of a spinal section from a Saxon burial barrow.
The evidence it showed of deformation from pressure on the spine led into
discussion of the effect of increasing frailty through age. Twenty years ago
intrinsic problems of ageing were seen as reversible. Now there seems no
general tend amenable to 'magic bullets'. Rather what appears is a network of
interrelated age effects, themselves related to change in the body's holistic
system. Change relates to alteration in
the body's mass, including fat mass - as muscle mass declines, it tends to be
replaced with fat mass - the weight gains associated with ageing. Other changes
relate to cell metabolism, oral and aural feed-back (loss of hearing and taste
sensation) and our responses to changes in our environment become blunted and

Frailty can be seen as 'unsuccessful ageing' leading to dependency.
Persistent structural change in the body may be partly genetic, 'bred in' as
result of embryonic experience. Experiments on small mammals have already been
able to demonstrate this, and birth weight can also be a factor affecting
frailty in later life. A considerable agenda for research in this area remains.

Perhaps the most heartening speaker for the
grey of hair among us was Simon Denegri from the Association of Medical
Research Charities. Among the bigger players in the voluntary sector, the AMRC works among other things to ensure public monies donated to
their 115 member charities are wisely spent and toward patient involvement
('Patients as Partners') with organisations such as the Wellcome Trust one of the largest medical charities in the UK.

£91 million pounds was spent on
research by the AMRC's member organisations in 2007, representing more than 1/3
of all public expenditure on research in the UK that year. This indicates a huge
degree of trust and concern on the part of the public, but is possibly a
reflection on the numbers who may be affected by the results of research - some
750,000 people are directly affected by Alzheimer's Disease in the UK at
present, and the Alzheimer's Society spends £2-3 million on research every

Less high profile research can also have considerable impact - Dr Dawn
Shelton's study of how exercise can reduce by up to 50% the chances of a second
fall among those suffering femur or similar fracture being but one of them.

This event inaugurated an exhibition at the Royal Society of Physicians on
Healthy Living in more general terms.

Published on EdinburghGuide.com 2008

Copyright Bill Dunlop 2008