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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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On a mission to show that hearing loss is not inevitable

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The world’s largest investigation into the effectiveness of hearing training kicks off this week – as part of a movement to prove that hearing loss is not an inevitable part of ageing.

The research project aims to attract a minimum of 10,000 participants to better understand how hearing training impacts auditory processing skills like speech comprehension and the ability to locate where sounds are coming from.

Researchers are interested in the impact of hearing training on users who start training with different hearing ability levels, as well as training adherence in groups with different attitudes to smartphone technology.

Their aim is to find new ways to deliver and improve auditory training at scale and for a wider range of hearing skills; and to measure factors which influence training engagement.

The research is led by health tech firm Eargym. Co-founder Andy Shanks says:  Contrary to popular belief, hearing loss is not an inevitable consequence of ageing. We can take steps to improve and protect our hearing throughout our lives, yet preventative measures like hearing training have traditionally been under-researched.

“Our data shows the transformative impact hearing training can have on our ability to process sounds. Now, we want to deepen and widen our research and use our platform to make hearing training even more effective and accessible. Imagine improving and maintaining your hearing by up to 20% or more: it could make a big difference to the lives of so many people.”

The games on the Eargym app include a “busy barista” exercise, where users must discern speech over a cafe’s bustling background noise; and a “sound seeking” exercise, where users make their way through forests, jungles and oceans to locate the sources of different sounds. Each game is designed to be immersive and to help users practise specific auditory processing skills regularly.

Eargym was set up by former NHS CEO Amanda Philpott and DJ Andy Shanks in 2020, after they were both diagnosed with hearing loss. Amanda has moderate age related hearing loss, whilst Andy has “notch” or noise-induced hearing loss due to DJ-ing. Both found hearing loss isolating and it impacted their ability to socialise and communicate. They created eargym to empower others to better understand their hearing health and take proactive steps to protect it.

Hearing loss currently affects 18 million adults in the UK, with around one billion young people at risk of developing hearing loss due to increased use of headphones. Hearing loss is closely associated with increased dementia risk. Despite this, people wait an average ten years before seeking help for hearing loss.

Eargym plans to publish the findings of its research in early 2025.

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Interview: Exploring electrical stimulation for Parkinson’s disease

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The STEPS II study is investigating functional electrical stimulation (FES) in people with Parkinson’s disease to help improve their walking. Dr Paul Taylor, co-founder and Clinical Director of Odstock Medical Ltd (OML), spoke to Agetech World to tell us more.

Bradykinesia – slowness of movement which can lead to difficulty walking – affects many people living with Parkinson’s disease. The symptom can cause Parkinson’s patients to walk or move slowly, increasing the risk of falls, leading to a reduced quality of life and an increased dependence on others. 

Funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, sponsored by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, and managed by the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Clinical Trials Unit, the STEPS II study is exploring the use of an FES device in Parkinson’s patients to help improve bradykinesia. 

The FES device, which has been pioneered by Salisbury researchers as a drop foot treatment for stroke and MS patients, is attached to the patient’s leg and produces small electrical impulses that improve movement.

“If you have Bradykinesia you’re moving slowly. The predominant treatment for Parkinson’s is medication and these can be very effective, but they have the problem of not working all the time,” explains Taylor, co-founder of Odstock Medical Ltd, a company owned by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust.

”The effects of the drugs will wear off and after a period of time they become less effective, so, there’s a need for improvement.”

Taylor explains that deep brain stimulators are currently available, however, they are very invasive, expensive and can be risky. 

“We’re trying to do something which is a bit simpler and cheaper, which may possibly be able to help people at an earlier stage of Parkinson’s,” Taylor says.

“We’re stimulating the common peroneal nerve, which is the nerve that goes down the leg to the muscles, using a device called a drop foot stimulator. The device is commonly used for stroke and multiple sclerosis.”

A small feasibility study has already been conducted, which showed that FES can help patients walk faster and reduce some symptoms of Parkinson’s. 

In the STEPS II study, researchers hope to confirm the long-term effects of FES on walking speed and daily life with 234 participants at sites across Salisbury, Birmingham, Prestwick, Leeds, Swansea and Carlisle.

Taylor continues: “Our original idea was that we could use electrical stimulation to overcome freezing – which is the effect where people with Parkinson’s will stop walking, particularly when they come to doorways or very narrow areas. It’s to do with the processing of information from the outside world. 

“We wanted to see if we could use electrical stimulation to overcome that freezing and, to a certain extent, we did find that is the case for some patients, but more commonly and with a greater number of patients FES affected bradykinesia – speeding up their movement and helping with more effective walking.”

For the STEPS II study, participants will be randomised into a care as normal group, or a care as normal plus FES group. They will use the stimulator if they are in the FES group for 18 weeks, then the stimulator is taken away, with patients followed up one month later to see if the effects are continued.

Measurements of walking speed and movement will be analysed, along with sensory perception, balance, coordination, muscle strength, as well as secondary effects such as how the device impacts daily living and quality of life.

OML has established clinics around the country with trained therapists where the device will be used if the study is successful. 

“There’s a network of clinics already experienced in using the treatment so we plan to reach those clinics to include Parkinson’s patients in their cohorts,” says Taylor. “Then we’ll work with our contacts to see if we can get it overseas as well.”

OML is currently recruiting participants for the study, to find out more please visit: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/penctu/steps-2 

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Quit Googling to stave off dementia onset, expert urges

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Resisting the temptation to search the web for information that could otherwise be recalled be exercising your brain could help to reduce the risk of dementia.

That is according to Canadian academic Professor Mohamed I. Elmasry who believes simple daily habits such as afternoon naps, memory ‘workouts’ and not reaching for a smartphone can increase the odds of healthy aging.

His new book, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence, says the focus has shifted too far away from RI (natural, or real) intelligence in favour of AI (machine, or artificial) intelligence. Elmasry instead calls us to nurture our human mind which, like smartphones, has ‘hardware’, ‘software’ and ‘apps’ but is many times more powerful – and will last much longer with the right care.

Professor Elmasry, an internationally recognised expert in microchip design and AI, was inspired to write the book after the death of his brother-in-law from Alzheimer’s and others very close to him, including his mother, from other forms of dementia.

Although he says that smart devices are ‘getting smarter all the time’, he argues in iMind that none comes close to ‘duplicating the capacity, storage, longevity, energy efficiency, or self-healing capabilities of the original human brain-mind’.

He writes that: “The useful life expectancy for current smartphones is around 10 years, while a healthy brain-mind inside a healthy human body can live for 100 years or longer.

“Your brain-mind is the highest-value asset you have, or will ever have. Increase its potential and longevity by caring for it early in life, keeping it and your body healthy so it can continue to develop.

“Humans can intentionally develop and test their memories by playing ‘brain games,’ or performing daily brain exercises. You can’t exercise your smartphone’s memory to make it last longer or encourage it to perform at a higher level.”

In iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence Professor Elmasry shares an anecdote about his grandchildren having to use the search engine on their smartphones to name Cuba’s capital—they had just spent a week in the country with their parents.

The story illustrates how young people have come to rely on AI smartphone apps instead of using their real intelligence (RI), he says, adding: “A healthy memory goes hand-in-hand with real intelligence. Our memory simply can’t reach its full potential without RI.”

Published by Routledge, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence includes extensive background on the history of microchip design, machine learning and AI and their role in smartphones and other technology.

The book also explains how both AI and human intelligence really work, and how brain function links the mind and memory. It compares the human mind and brain function with that of smartphones, ChatGPT and other AI-based systems.

Drawing on comprehensive existing research, iMind aims to narrow the knowledge gap between real and artificial intelligence, to address the current controversy around AI, and to inspire researchers to find new treatments for Alzheimer’s, other neurodegenerative conditions and cancer.

It argues that current or even planned AI cannot match the capabilities of the human brain-mind for speed, accuracy, storage capacity and other functions. Healthy aging, Professor Elmasry notes, is as important as climate change but doesn’t attract a fraction of the publicity.

He calls for policymakers to adopt a series of key reforms to promote healthy aging. Among such changes, he suggests that bingo halls could transition from their sedentary entertainment function to become active and stimulating learning centers.

As well as napping to refresh our memories and other brain and body functions, he also outlines a series of practical tips to boost brain power and enhance our RI (Real Intelligence).

These include building up ‘associative’ memory – the brain’s ‘dictionary of meaning’ where it attaches new information to what it already knows. Try reading a book aloud, using all of your senses instead of going on autopilot and turning daily encounters into fully-lived experiences.

Other techniques include integrating a day for true rest into the week, reviewing your lifestyle as early as your 20s or 30s, adopting a healthy diet, and eliminating or radically moderating alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of dementia.

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