Traditional health research has focussed on risk factors that cause people to develop disease and die early. This has contributed to the increases in life span. Societies are now confronted with an increased fraction of their citizens living long enough to suffer from age-related diseases, often with the complications of multiple medical problems. However, there is great variation in the way that different individuals experience the ageing process. Some of 60-year olds appear to have a biological age of 80, but some at age 80 years seem as if they were aged only 60. The key question now is to understand why individuals age at such a different pace. To fully understand the causes of this variation in ageing trajectories necessitates a detailed knowledge of the underlying mechanisms. This is timely as recent advances in understanding ageing of experimental models are beginning to provide the promise of previously unforeseen breakthroughs. Acquiring a better understanding of the interplay of genes, nutrition, lifestyle and environment chance will be crucial if Europe is to maximise the benefits of increased longevity by keeping people healthier for longer.

New, powerful technologies and the development of biological markers of ageing are likely to result in the identification of determinants of a healthy ageing trajectory. A key challenge in bringing this about will be to bridge the biological and medical research domains, which traditionally have been separated by important differences in their conceptual approaches. One of the main needs is to develop and apply a multi-disciplinary approach to unravel the ageing process. This will require the building of teams that can cover the full range of challenges that arise not only within the laboratory clinic but also within the daily lives of older people across society. Our report identifies major structural issues, in terms of the organisation of professional groups with research interests in ageing and of the development of training with the European medical and biological curricula, which urgently need to be addressed.

Among the hurdles which definitely need to be overcome is the outdated but still powerful tradition of holding both scientific research into ageing and the medical care of geriatric patients in low esteem, compared with other branches of biomedical research. This derives from the ambivalence of society towards its older citizens and the widespread negative stereotypes which too often pass unchallenged. The ultimate prospect for the required new medicine of old will be for senior citizens to remain active for longer, to consume fewer healthcare resources and to contribute for longer to the economy.

Medicine panel members

Rudi Westendorp
Leiden University Medical Centre, Netherlands

Gillian Butler-Browne
Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Institut de Myologie, Paris

Eva Topinkova
Charles University Prague, Czech Republic

Alex Buerkle
University of Konstanz, Germany

Heinz Osiewacz
Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany