By Ariana Gatt, a Neuroscience PhD student at King’s College London
The world is ageing, and at a pretty fast rate. On a global scale the human race is living longer. We have better health care, for example we have eradicated smallpox, and are close to getting rid of other deadly diseases such as Polio that used to be a widespread cause of childhood mortality. Additionally, we are better vaccinated and have greater access to antibiotics. However, fertility rate is on the decline; women are having fewer children and therefore the world demographic curve is shifting towards the ‘older’ end of the spectrum. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there will be 2 billion people aged 60 and over by the year 2050; which means approximately 20% of the world’s population will be of retirement age.
Unfortunately, a longer lifespan does not directly correlate with good health in older age. Age is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke to name a few. What’s more, up to 30% of people aged 85 and over suffer some degree of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, which are known to be associated with increasing age. Understanding the mechanisms of neurodegeneration and its association with ageing must, therefore, become a global priority.
Today, there are 44 million cases of dementia worldwide. With an increasingly ageing population, this number could treble by 2050. In the UK, dementia is now one of the leading causes of death, especially in women. Dementia, the most common form of which is Alzheimer’s disease, is a greater cause of death in women than breast cancer, stroke or heart disease. However, cancer research still receives eight times more funding than dementia research in the UK.
The UK government has pledged to invest in finding a cure for this devastating disease by 2025, and the Defeat Dementia campaign, launched this year by Alzheimer’s Research UK, promises a £100 million investment in diagnosis, prevention and treatment of the disease. Similarly, over 2012 and 2013, President Barack Obama increased US investment into Alzheimer’s research by over $100 million, as part of the NAPA (National plan to address Alzheimer’s disease) project. Additionally, last year Obama launched the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative to map the human brain, neuron by neuron, creating a ‘brain’ version of the human genome project; the aim of this is to allow better understanding brain degeneration mechanisms to facilitate finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.
The need for immediate action and intervention to allow healthier ageing and to finding cures for age-related diseases should not be understated. As a society, we must also be prepared to face this reality and do our part in improving social care and supporting the ageing population.