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On 2 October, HFE attended the launch of the ‘Irish Longitudinal study on ageing” at the European Parliament organised by ISC Intelligence in Science. The study, which is a large-scale, nationally representative study of people aged 50 and over in Ireland, aimed to identify the older citizen and explore the ageing process in order to plan appropriate health, medical, social and economic policies.

Europe’s ageing demographics are a key challenge for the European society, as people aged 65 years or over will account for 29.5% of the population by 2060. As a consequence, there will be an enormous increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and heart disease. According to the draft version of the TILDA study if Europe does not face this challenge, the public finances of the EU Member States may be sunk by the cost of funding public healthcare.  The study concludes that to face this challenge, scientific research is essential to provide factual evidence to policy makers. In particular, it requires gathering necessary data involving repeated observations over long periods of time (sometimes even decades) to study development trends across the life of citizen. In this specific case, the focus was on understanding the ageing process and exploring early identifiers of ageing.

TILDA was established by Trinity College Dublin in 2006 and it is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies on physical, psychological and socio-economic determinants of healthy and active ageing at European and International levels.  TILDA charts all aspect of health, economic and social circumstances of over 8,500 people aged 50 years and over living in Ireland over a period of 10 years and collects data once every two years.

MEP Emer Costello (S&D, Ireland), opened the meeting by describing the engagement of the EU on this topic, specifically highlighting that Horizon 2020 (the EU next financial framework programme for research and innovation), includes a pillar on “societal challenges”.  Healthy ageing, demographics and well-being constitute the key societal challenges identified in the framework programme.  Moreover, she noted that 2012 was declared “European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations” to raise awareness on the contribution that older people make to society. Mrs. Costello also referenced the EU Summit on Active and Health Ageing in June 2013, which was held in association with the Irish Council Presidency, and saw the signing of the Dublin Declaration on Age-Friendly Cities and Communities in Europe.

Professor Rose Anne Kenny, of Trinity College Dublin, described the project as “the most ambitious study on ageing ever carried out in Ireland” and suggested that it represents a step-change in terms of data, knowledge and understanding of ageing. Its aim is to characterise the older citizen and explore factors which determine successful ageing and thereby support the development of an environment for ageing well. She added that “TILDA will provide a very valuable input to policymakers in EU in helping formulate evidence base policies. As the EU prepares to launch Horizon 2020 it will be important to have long-term perspectives contributing to the policy debate around future health care.”

This study has revealed several myths of ageing, such as:

  • ‘Life gets better as we age!” – Quality of life continues to improve after age 50 and peaks between the ages of 65 and 75. At the age 83, quality of life is equivalent to aged to aged 50 years.
  • “Older people are a resource for family and society” – Older people support adult children and grandchildren. It is not only an economic aid, but they help in the house and they take care of kids and other older people as friends and relatives. Older people are often engaged in social activity and voluntary service for the society, and their help is invaluable for the well-being of the community
  • “Working is good for your brain” – Working, education and social engagement enhances cognitive function and protects against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

TILDA’s results pointed out that increasing life expectancy does not correspond to an improvement of healthy life years. The results suggested that the number of older people who are living poorly is high in the European Union causing unnecessary increases in diseases related to ageing such as depression, atria fibrillation and dementia.

The seminar demonstrated the enormous health and economic challenges for the European Union as its’ population ages. Research has a key role to play in meetings these challenges, not only in addressing health issues, but in providing evidence for the best policies to meet these challenges. Participants therefore stressed that it is essential for the EU to take steps to support the future of longitudinal research.