Author Archives: jamesgoodwin1407

Science and Serendipity

This blog was contributed by James Goodwin, Age UK’s Chief Scientist. 

Recently, I received the sad news of the death of a dear friend and colleague who through his example, leadership and support had helped to change the course of my career.  Dr Ken Collins, a notable researcher and physician of old age medicine was instrumental in evoking my interest in ageing, at a crucial time in my life.  Our meeting was as fortuitous as it was timely, a truly serendipitous moment.  Through it, he began my life-long dedication to ageing science but more so, he implanted the priceless notion that we must go beyond the simple necessity of high quality research – vital though that is – and seek to generate impact, to change society in its approach, in its thinking and in its behaviour, so that genuine benefits accrue to older people. Continue reading

A Lesson from Siberia

Portrait of a old woman in winter

In 1993, two friends and colleagues of mine alighted from an internal flight in the heart of Siberia. The light was failing and the temperature plummeted as they wound their way from the landing strip into an endless forest. They were lost. Eventually, coming upon a wooden settlement, they found shelter with the village teacher, the only English speaker for many, many miles.

Professor Bill Keatinge later confided in me that he had learned two lessons from this incident. One was to learn Russian (which he later did, with some panache). The second was to dress like the Russians. Because Yakutsk, the city which they had come to visit, is the coldest city in the world. During their trip, the temperature fell to a mere -26C. The lowest winter temperatures reach -60.

And what, may we ask, was the attraction of this cold Siberian city? Ironically, the inhospitable, intractable, bone gnawing cold was the motivation for their journey. They were part of the Eurowinter Group, a collection of Europe’s finest scientists, whose mission was to unravel the complicated story of winter deaths in Europe. Until that time, no-one had a convincing explanation (scientists call this a ‘model’) of the pattern of winter deaths in Europe which varied from one country to another. And the prime question was why on earth should the British Isles, with its temperate maritime climate, be the villain of the piece, with many more ‘excess winter deaths’ than its colder European neighbours? Continue reading

Understanding the Oldest Old

In 2012, the Office for National Statistics estimated that there are nearly 1.5 million people aged 85 and over in the UK. We are only at the beginning of an estimated escalation of numbers of people in this age group, projected to reach 5 million by 2050. What was formerly a small number of exceptional individuals is rapidly becoming a whole new generation for families in this country: the ‘Fourth Generation’.

Over recent years, through research, our contact with leading experts, and ourRea3 engagement with older people, it has become apparent to Age UK that we all need to know more about these ‘oldest old’. Often what we hear are stereotypes held over from days gone by – that these oldest people are all frail and in care homes, their useful life over. We are concerned that all of us who make decisions concerning their welfare need help to get up to date with their nature and needs.

So we asked experts to write summaries of what is known in their area of research about the ‘oldest old’. We’ve collected these lay-person summaries into a short book, ‘Understanding the Oldest Old.’ Continue reading

One swallow does not make a summer

At the start of the winter, it might seem strange to write about swallows and summers, especially when 21,700 older people died of cold related illness last year. That wasn’t 2,170 people. It was ten times that number and over the last 10 years, an average of over 26,000 have died each winter. You might be tempted to think that these deaths would have happened anyway and that they are ‘just brought forward’ by the cold of winter. But all the evidence tells us that this is not the case.

Every single death is unnecessary, avoidable, preventable.  For any other preventable cause of death this would be a national scandal.  There would be outcry, protest, even outrage. And even more so when we know that this has been going on for over 150 years, since 1841 when the then registrar general, William Farr (who also happened to be Florence Nightingale’s statistician) first recorded an excess of winter deaths over the summer.  A conservative estimate tells us that this amounts to an all-time, truly shocking total of over some 3 million deaths.

440x210_Snow-in-Shepton-MalFor the last 30 years there has been a debate about cause but the evidence shows that the over-riding reason for these deaths is the personal exposure of the individual to cold temperatures.  This cause was first revealed by Curwen’s ‘regression model’ in 1997 when he showed that there were three factors most associated with excess winter deaths. These factors were secular trend (roughly equating to improvements in standard of living); influenza (only in epidemic years) and temperature. Of these three, the most strongly associated was temperature. Continue reading