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Celebrities call for older people’s tsar as UK population ages

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World Cup-winning footballer Sir Geoff Hurst, veteran radio DJ Tony Blackburn and former Strictly Come Dancing judge Dame Arlene Phillips, are among entertainment and sporting legends who have thrown their weight behind a campaign to appoint a Commissioner for Older People and Ageing in England.

Death in Paradise star Don Warrington and TV chef Rustie Lee have also come out in support of the campaign, aimed at ensuring pensioners’ voices are heard at the highest levels of government.

Older People’s Commissioners have existed in Northern Ireland and Wales for more than a decade, and charity Independent Age believes it is time a tsar is appointed to represent the rights of England’s 11 million over 65s.

More than 70 other organisations, including Age UK, the Centre for Ageing Better, and the National Pensioners’ Convention, are also backing the drive, with UK Parliament statistics revealing that one in four of England’s population – more than 17 million – will be over the age of 65 by 2043.

Independent Age, which is focused on supporting older people facing financial hardship, is also challenging the misconception that everyone in later life enjoys a comfortable retirement. More than two million older people are currently living in poverty, with many more struggling to make ends meet due to the cost-of-living crisis.

Sir Geoff Hurst – the first man to score a hat trick in a World Cup final and be on the winning team when England beat West Germany 4-2 at Wembley in 1966 – said he is supporting the call for a commissioner “because from what I’ve seen and heard over the last few months, the impact of the cost of living is absolutely disastrous for older people.”

The 81-year-old added: “I hear stories of people eating just one meal a day or not having the heating on in their homes. These things are happening every day and it’s absolutely unbelievably difficult for older people to survive under these circumstances.”

World Cup-winning footballer Sir Geoff Hurst. Credit Independent Age

Tony Blackburn, 80, who holds the record for being the longest serving radio DJ and hosts his Sunday Golden Hour on BBC Radio 2, said he is personally aware “that in this country there is ageism. I luckily haven’t come up against it, although I think sometimes it’s forgotten that older people bring experience.

“Recently with the cost-of-living crisis and the price of electricity in particular, I’ve been really moved by watching the news and seeing older people not being able to heat their houses.

“Older people sitting there with blankets around themselves. It really, really shouldn’t be like that in this country, there should be much more help. Something’s got to be done about it.”

Choreographer Dame Arlene Phillips, who has recently been honoured with an Olivier award, feels she is one of the lucky ones. Now 79, she said: “I am still working in a job that I’m passionate about and wake up every morning wanting to go to work, which I believe has gone a long way in helping me stay fit and healthy and inside feel younger than my chronological age. 

“There are so many things that people need when they are ageing that are mostly ignored, and many feel nobody is listening. We urgently need someone dedicated who cares and will listen.”

She added: “A Commissioner for Older People and Ageing is urgently needed. Someone to look into all of the issues that getting older puts on people, particularly when the country is in crisis.”

Rustie Lee rose to fame in 1983 as a chef on TV-am. Now 73, she said: “It’s so important for everyone who is struggling at the moment to know that someone is looking out for them,” while Don Warrington, 71, who plays Commissioner Selwyn Patterson in the hit BBC drama, Death in Paradise, commented: “I think things creep up on you gradually as you age and that is the thing about ageing. Not fighting it necessarily, but also not surrendering to some idea of ageing.”

If created, a commissioner would work alongside the Older People’s Commissioners for Wales and Northern Ireland to encourage collaboration and joined-up thinking to deliver policy solutions that benefit everyone as they age. 

They would make independent recommendations and have the power to launch inquiries to resolve issues for older people now and in the future.

They would represent and amplify different views on the problems that older people say they are struggling with.

John Palmer, Director of Policy and Communications at Independent Age. Credit: Leanne Benson

John Palmer, Director of Policy and Influencing at Independent Age, said: “We are incredibly grateful to Sir Geoff, Tony, Dame Arlene, Don and Rustie for supporting our call for a Commissioner for Older People and Ageing and shining a light on the issues older people in poverty are experiencing every day.

“It has never been more important for older people, who often tell us they feel invisible and like their views are ignored, to have an independent champion at the heart of government who can ensure that none of us are left out of the conversation as we age.”

Issues older people say they are struggling with include:

  • Financial hardship
  • The cost of living crisis
  • Work
  • Health and social care
  • Digital, social and economic inclusion

Dr Carole Easton, Chief Executive at the Centre for Ageing Better, one of the organisations backing the call for a commissioner, said: “In 2021, 200,000 more people celebrated their 50th birthday than their 18th in the UK. In 20 years’ time, one in four people will be over 65.

“At present, we are not prepared for the complex social and policy challenges this demographic change will bring. As a result, the growing inequality in older age groups we are currently seeing will only get worse.

“To meet the needs of older people both now and in the future to ensure we can all be supported to age well, we need a much more ambitious and strategic response. We believe a Commissioner for Older People and Ageing will help deliver the long-term planning needed to reshape our economy and public services for the future and for the benefit of the whole country.”

Jan Shortt, General Secretary of the National Pensioners’ Convention, believes older people have the right to choice, dignity, respect, independence and security.

“All too often the value of our experience and knowledge gained throughout our lives is ignored. We are not seen to contribute to society because we are no longer working or viewed as productive. 

“Yet tomorrow’s older people will be today’s young people – our children and grandchildren. That’s why we believe it is time for a serious change of perception and culture around the older generation.”

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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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