Age-related frailty, disability and disease present an immense and growing cost to society in terms of health and social service expenditure, impaired quality of life, and physical and emotional suffering, both of older people themselves and their families and carers. Understanding the biological mechanisms underlying ageing thus represents a major priority in health research.
Research that can lead to novel intervention to extend the health span and improve quality of life at older age has the potential for enormous impact in an ever-ageing society. Furthermore, the growing anxiety and fiscal threat posed by increased pension costs is founded on biodemographic models of ageing that urgently need updating by better informed knowledge of the ageing process and projections for future life expectancy. Thus, the potential impact of scientific ageing research is vast but presently under-realised. AGEACTION will work to change this.
The scientific impact of the project will come from coordinating inputs from the currently fragmented research activity within Europe. The diversity of European research traditions is potentially a rich resource for a topic as multi-faceted as biogerontology, but only if these diverse elements communicate with each other and develop ways of working together. It is expected that in addition to the broad scientific impacts that will result from addressing these key questions, a wide variety of other, related impacts will result.
It is only recently that researchers in other fields of biomedical research related to middle and late life degenerative conditions (e.g. dementia, cancer) have begun to recognise that since age tends to be the single biggest risk factor for the condition they are studying, understanding why the aged cell or organ is more vulnerable to pathology is likely to enable major breakthroughs. AGEACTION will impact on this hitherto under-recognised need by making researchers in other fields better aware of the current state of progress in biological ageing research and of the potential to harness this work to help understand ‘upstream’ mechanisms of age-related frailty, disability and disease via common links to the ageing process.
It is now clear that ageing itself is the result of progressive, lifelong accumulation of a variety of molecular and cellular damage. This implies that ageing is a process that operates cumulatively across the life course and therefore events that happen at any age, even in utero, can have a major impact on an individual’s expectation of length of life and of health in old age. AGEACTION will encourage more researchers across biological, medical and social fields to address the links between early and late-life processes.
Innovation and exploitation
The field of scientific ageing research is experiencing a time of rapid innovation, as a result of technology advances and a growing conceptual integration of research. In addition, the field is seeing significant advances towards exploitation of discovery in this area, by patenting novel technologies and targets for intervention in age-related diseases. To date, the exploitation of basic biogerontological research has proceeded much faster in the USA than it has in Europe. AGEACTION will seek to generate an unprecedented scale of European collaboration and focus on common research strategies that will foster the formation of new SMEs to exploit these technologies in the future.
Europe currently lacks any effective structure that can coordinate scientific ageing research. This contrasts sharply with other regions, particularly the USA where the National Institute on Aging has for three decades provided highly effective and structured support. Although European countries have individual mechanisms to support research in the science of ageing, these are uneven in scale and often provide rather little support even for intra-national coordination. Furthermore, although Europe has a number of learned societies for researchers in the science of ageing, these are not yet working effectively together. Such trans-European activity as is available, e.g. through the European Region of the International Association of Gerontology, has limited resources and is part of a multidisciplinary structure that has only a small fraction of its attention focused on biological ageing research. For all of these reasons, AGEACTION will seek to bring about the considerable European added-value that is required if European research resources are to be deployed so as to compete effectively on the international stage.