The Fountain of Youth

In the mythical land of Bimini, the indigenous populations of the Caribbean sought the fountain of youth, an idea which has intrigued and captivated peoples around the world and throughout history.  Beginning with Herodontus, carried in the hopes and dreams of the conquistadors and persisting into 19th Century literature, the fountain of youth has been a metaphor for increased longevity and vitality. This was not a trivial quest.  Over the centuries, mankind has had to come to terms with the nastiness, the brutishness and the shortness of life.  Within living memory in the UK, generations have experienced virulent infections, high childhood mortality and longevity of not much more than 50 years.  It is only now that society sees a reversal of its fortunes with healthy life expectancy increasing and longevity showing no signs of abatement.

For many, 60 is truly the new 40 and increasingly the benefits of a healthy third age are becoming an accepted reality.  But there are many others, some 12 million in the UK, who are plagued with long term chronic illness.  And there are equal numbers who either do not know how or who do not have the means to secure a healthy future.

Over the last 40 years, notably since the establishment of a strategic programme of ageing research in the USA, science has slowly revealed the secrets of ageing.  The myths of ageing are slowly being dispelled: our lifespan is not determined at birth; ageing does not begin when we retire; its process is ongoing throughout life and marvel upon marvel, we may influence it and slow it down. And if we can slow it down, we can remain healthy for longer.

This therefore begs the question: what does science tell us about slowing down ageing, about remaining healthy and about retaining a productive and quality older age?  Age UK has worked with leading scientists and physicians to distil their accumulated wisdom into advice which is accessible and clear.  We call it our top ten tips – ten pieces of precious advice which if followed will translate into a happier and healthier life.  Re-iterated here, they are:

  • Take regular exercise
  • Engage socially with others
  • Have a positive attitude about ageing
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Protect your eyes
  • Don’t smoke
  • Get regular health check-ups
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure
  • Get sufficient, good quality sleep
  • Pay attention to your pension and get expert financial advice.

Some of this advice may appear no better than what grandma said. But grandma said lots of things and not all of them were true. And some of the details of the advice may be surprising to many people. I would focus on just two, by way of illustration.  The research evidence for thinking positively about ageing is remarkable. Our beliefs and attitude influence our health – and we can control our beliefs. So much so that thinking positively can put, on average, 7.5 extra healthy years on our life. Another example would be sleep. Science has shown that poor quality sleep dramatically affects our health and our risk of disease; it is directly related to increased risks of diabetes type 2, a killer disease and it raises the levels of inflammation in the body, accelerating the ageing process.  These two examples are but part of a paradigm, a new way of thinking, a discipline of ageing. We can control it, we can slow it down and we can reap what our forebears would say is a sprinkling, if not a veritable fountain of youth.


The End of Nurture vs. Nature

This blog was written by James Goodwin, Head of Research, Age UK

Since John Locke wrote of ‘tabla rasa’ in his essay of 1690 and more recently Francis Galton of ‘Hereditary Genius’ in 1869, scientists, philosophers and social commentators have argued long and hard on the issue of Nature vs Nurture. It has been a polemic and inevitably a politicised argument. Through twin studies, behavioural genetics and other approaches, scientists have variously argued the proportion of our ‘genius’ which is due to either pedigree or poverty – or their interaction.  Now for the first time, a milestone scientific study confirms unequivocally – based on measured genetic data – that a large proportion of intelligence is inherited.  Moreover, the data show inherited intelligence is the result of small contributions by lots of genes rather than a big effect of just one or two genes.  In other words, a substantial proportion of individual differences in human intelligence is due to genetic variation.  The study made the discovery after analysing half a million genetic markers in a large sample of 3,500 older people in Scotland and England.  The data were checked against a separate group of older people in Norway.  And it was led by scientists from the University of Edinburgh funded by Age UK, using a new type of analysis, invented by Professor Peter Visscher and colleagues in Brisbane.

These unique data reveal that the proportion of intelligence that is down to genes is 40% for crystallised intelligence and 51% for fluid intelligence. Crystallised intelligence refers to learning, knowledge and skills that are accumulated over a lifetime. This type of intelligence tends to increase with age.  Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason quickly, think abstractly and deal with complex information around us. It tends to decline with age.

The significance of these findings is hard to appreciate. In the past, the view existed that it might never be possible to separate out, in a quantitative sense, the various proportions of nature and nurture.  And not only that, those scientists who searched for ‘intelligence genes’ had been unable to find them or had their methodology or findings derided on the grounds of racism or other prejudice.  The study too is not without its criticisms but it represents a watershed development in our understanding of one of the most intractable issues in science.  It has generated huge interest in the world’s scientific press and for good reason.  Not only does it represent a paradigm of excellence in the quality of its science but it also opens the way for a clearer, less equivocal understanding of the role of those modifiable factors in the environment which influence how we maintain good cognitive function as we age.

Age UK is proud to have supported this study.  Good science is never quick.  Findings take years, even decades to emerge and even longer to influence thinking, the view of society and policy change in critically important areas.  The decline of our mental function as we age is one of these areas, feared by millions and affecting increasing numbers in our ageing society.  As a result of this study, we are one step closer to real solutions which will enable present and future generations to age healthily and well.