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Ageism: kicking one of the last socially acceptable prejudices into touch

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A leading expert on ageing has said society needs to stop thinking of older people in terms of “us versus them” and reassess the often negative language used when talking about the over-65s.

Trish D’Antonio, the executive director of the US National Center to Reframe Aging, said one of the most widespread terms employed when talking about late adulthood is “us versus them, like always using the word ‘they’ to talk about older people.”

Pointing out that everyone is a member of an ageing population from the moment they’re born, Ms D’Antonio said when she’s asked how collective misconceptions about older people can best be tackled in the wider community, she explains “the us versus them is really a place where I tell people to start first…if I’m a health care practitioner and I have to write an education piece, or if you’re working on a website, a webpage, write what you have to write, and then go through and see how many times you refer to older people as ‘they’ – when ‘they’ age – and really think about how we can make it about all of us as we age.”

The language used to describe older people is another area Ms D’Antonio said she sees an opportunity for positive change.

“I have to admit that I use this term – not recently – but when we talk about the ‘silver tsunami’, so that fatalistic thinking, that crisis thinking. It’s very negative.

“What would you do if someone was telling you there was a tsunami coming? You’d run. So, really thinking about how we phrase and recognise we are all members of our community is so important and so valuable.

“And it can even be as subtle as when we start talking about statistics about older people…if we frontload any discussion with statistics, people start to say, ‘that’s a little bit too much for me to handle’.

“Really you can start to talk about your solution first, your systemic solution. Maybe the statistics come in the second paragraph.

“The last way that I think would be really good… is when we talk about what we call a super senior, that person who is 80 years old and has just run a marathon, which is fantastic, but what is the context that helps support that person?

Trish D’Antonio, executive director of The National Center to Reframe Aging

“There is transportation, there are sidewalks, so they run every day on a sidewalk. There are other services in the community, other supports in the community, that help that person continue to be able to run the marathon, or jump out of the airplane.

“You can make a significant change by just tweaking a little about what you say and what you write.”

The National Center to Reframe Aging is led by The Gerontological Society of America and is a long-term social change endeavour working to improve the public’s understanding of what growing older means and the many positive ways the over 65’s contribute to society.

Ms D’Antonio shared her thoughts on ageing in a new Vlog chaired by Rear Admiral Paul Reed, director of the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, in which they discussed the importance of highlighting older people’s contributions to society and addressing ageism and the collective misconceptions.

She described ageism as “any kind of discrimination towards older people. When we think about definitions of ageisim, it goes a little more deeply to think about not only the external ageism that we may experience but our own internalised ageism. It’s a constant battle and one that really has health implications for us all.”

With the global population ageing – the World Health Organisation predicts there will be 2.1 billion people aged 60-plus by 2050, with the number of over-80s expected to triple to 426 million in the next 27 years – the need to change how society speaks and thinks about older adults, has never been more critical.

Ms D’Antonio told Rear Admiral Reed: “We are bombarded with messages that give us a negative perception or, maybe not always negative, but a singular perception of what it means to grow old.

“We see that from a very young age. We see that on television, we hear that in jokes that people tell, so we really hear that in our culture.”

She continued: “When we talk about ageism…this is any kind of discrimination toward older people. What we do recognise about ageism is that ageism can occur across the life course, so while our project is focused on older people certainly, we hear ageism across the life course.

“People will make comments about someone being too young to be part of something. She’s too young to run that department. She’s 24. As if your chronological age has something to do with it.”

But having a positive internal perception of ageing can be good for our health, Ms D’Antonio said. She shared research conducted by a team at Yale University that had shown that people’s internal positive perceptions of ageing could increase their life span by more than seven-and-a-half years.

Ms D’Antonio commented: “When we think about that internalised ageism, that can impact our health and wellbeing…that doesn’t start at a certain age. That impacts our health and well-being across the life course….it doesn’t start at 60 or 65. It starts when we’re born.”

To listen to the full interview between Ms D’Antonio and Rear Admiral Reed, click here 

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Tai chi outperforms conventional exercise for seniors

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New findings from 12 studies involving 2,901 participants have demonstrated that tai chi outperforms conventional exercise in improving mobility and balance in seniors.

While tai chi is understood to be beneficial for functional mobility and balance in older adults, such benefits are not well understood due to large variance in research study protocols and observations.

This new review and analysis has now shown that tai chi can induce greater improvement in functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults compared to conventional exercise.

The findings showed the following performance results:

  • The time to complete 50-foot walking was 1.84 seconds faster. 
  • The time to maintain a one-leg stance was 6 seconds longer when eyes were open and 1.65 seconds longer when eyes were closed. 
  • Individuals improved their timed-up-and-go test performance by 0.18 points, indicating quicker standing, walking, and sitting.
  • Individuals taking the functional reach test showed significant improvement with a standardised mean difference of 0.7, suggesting a noteworthy positive impact on the ability to reach and perform daily activities.

Secondary analyses revealed that the use of tai chi with relatively short duration of less than 20 weeks, low total time of less than 24 total hours, and/or focusing on the Yang-style of this ancient form of Chinese martial arts were particularly beneficial for functional mobility and balance as compared to conventional exercise.

“This systematic literature review and meta-analysis are exciting because they provide strong evidence that tai chi is a more efficient strategy to improve functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults, as compared to conventional exercise,” said Brad Manor, Ph.D., director of the Mobility and Falls Program at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“This research suggests that tai chi should be carefully considered in future studies and routines of rehabilitative programs for balance and mobility in older adults,” said Bao Dapeng, professor at Beijing Sport University.

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New standards for biomarkers of ageing

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A paper has put forward a new framework for standardising the development and validation of biomarkers of ageing to better predict longevity and quality of life.

Led by Harvard researchers, the team has zeroed in on biomarkers of ageing using omic data from population-based studies. 

The team included ageing and longevity expert Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, founder and CEO of AI-driven drug discovery company Insilico Medicine, and the findings appeared in Nature Medicine

Ageing is associated with a number of biological changes including increased molecular and cellular damage, however, researchers do not yet have a standardised means to evaluate and validate biomarkers related to ageing. 

In order to create those standards as well as actionable clinical tools, the team analysed population-based cohort studies built on omic data (data related to biological molecules which can include proteomics, transcriptomics, genomics, and epigenomics) of blood-based biomarkers of ageing. The researchers then compared the predictive strength of different biomarkers, including study design and data collection approaches, and looked at how these biomarkers presented in different populations. 

In order to better assess the impact of ageing using biomarkers, the researchers found that clinicians needed to expand their focus to consider not only mortality as an outcome, but also how biomarkers of aging are associated with numerous other health outcomes, including functional decline, frailty, chronic disease, and disability. They also call for the standardisation of omic data to improve reliability. 

“Omics and biomarkers harmonisation efforts, such as the Biolearn project, are instrumental in validation of biomarkers of aging” said co-first author Mahdi Moqri, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

Biolearn is an open-source project for biomarkers of aging and is helping to harmonise existing ageing biomarkers, unify public datasets, and provide computational methodologies.

The team also emphasised the importance of continued collaborations among research groups on “large-scale, longitudinal studies that can track long-term physiological changes and responses to therapeutics in diverse populations”, and that further work is required to understand how implementation of biomarker evaluation in clinical trials might improve patient quality of life and survival.

“If we hope to have clinical trials for interventions that extend healthy lifespan in humans, we need reliable, validated biomarkers of ageing,” said co-first author Jesse Poganik, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

“We hope that our framework will help prioritise the most promising biomarkers and provide health care providers with clinically valuable and actionable tools.”

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Healthy aging research to receive $115 million

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Global non-profit Hevolution Foundation has announced $115 million in funding that makes up 49 new awards under its Geroscience Research Opportunities (HF-GRO) programme.  

As part of Hevolution’s mission to catalyse the healthspan scientific ecosystem and drive transformative breakthroughs in healthy aging, HF-GRO is funding promising pre-clinical research in aging biology and geroscience. 

Through this first wave of HF-GRO awards, Hevolution will invest up to $115 million in this first cohort of 49 selected projects over the next five years. Its second call for proposals under HF-GRO will be announced later this year, offering an additional $115 million to address the significant funding gaps in aging research.  

Dr. Felipe Sierra, Hevolution’s Chief Scientific Officer stated: “These 49 important research projects represent a significant step forward in deepening our understanding of healthy aging. Hevolution’s prime objective is to mobilise greater investment around uncovering the foundational mechanisms behind biological aging. 

“We are steadfast in our belief that by examining the root causes of aging, rather than solely focusing on its associated diseases, we can usher in a brighter future for humanity.” 

HF-GRO awardees include researchers at prestigious institutions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, including the U.S. National Institute on Aging, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Buck Institute, the Mayo Clinic, New York University, and the University of California San Francisco, among many others. 

The American Federation for Aging Research is providing programmatic support for the HF-GRO program, with grantees selected through a rigorous two-stage peer-review process involving 100 experts in aging biology and geroscience. 

Dr Berenice Benayoun, an HF-GRO grant recipient at the University of Southern California, stated: “I am extremely honored and excited that Hevolution selected our project for funding. This is a project close to my heart, which aims at understanding why and how the female and male innate immune aging differs. 

“This funding will support us as we start laying the foundation for a lasting improvement of women’s health throughout aging.” 

To date, Hevolution has committed approximately $250 million to transform the healthy aging sector, including the $40 million for specialised research and development in healthspan science recently announced at Hevolution’s Global Healthspan Summit. 

Hevolution is ramping up its investments to enable healthier aging for all and is now the second largest funder of aging biology research worldwide.  

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