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Be 80 and still healthy and active? No problem

Professor Linda Partridge in front of the Mendel´s statue in Brno, the very place where Mendel, the founder of genetics, worked almost 200 years ago.
The European population is getting older – according to statistics by 2050 the number of people older than 65 in the Czech Republic will have doubled. Ageing and illnesses connected to it bring with them not only a healthcare burden but also a decline in quality of life, loss of social contacts, economic and other problems. But new research shows that it could be possible to age and stay healthy, independent and active.

“It should be possible to make people healthier as they age,” says Linda Partridge, the director of the Institute of Healthy Ageing at University College London. Students and scientists had the opportunity to meet her at Masaryk University during the first spring Mendel Lecture in April.

As the proportion of old people in our society rises, one would say that your subject – biology of ageing – is becoming an area of growing interest.
Yes, we need to find ways of improving people’s heath as they age, because the major burden of ill health is now falling on the older section of the population. Fortunately, ageing research has undergone a revolution recently, and provides a great scientific opportunity. More and more labs are entering ageing research.

Would you say that one of your research aims is to find a way to slow down the ageing process?
Ageing is the major risk factor for all of the major killer diseases – cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia. However, until recenlty the prospects for ameliorating thew effects of ageing itself have looked poor because it is such a complicated process. However, this pessimistic view of ageing has been overturned by recent findings.

More than hundred of students and scientists had the opportunity to meet Linda Partridge at Masaryk University during the first spring Mendel Lecture in April. Photograph: David Povolny.
If we cannot beat ageing, can we control it somehow?
A complete surprise has come from work with laboratory animals such as worms, fruit flies, mice. We can make simple alterations to a single gene, just one gene, and make the animal live longer. It looks as if you can attack the ageing process with this gene mutation and also make the animal healthier when it gets older. Animals show a broad-spectrum improvement in health during middle and old age across many different systems.

Have you found any particular proof yet or it is just a hypothesis?
There is plenty of published proof of principle. For instance my colleague in London made a long-lived mouse: there was a thirty percent increase in lifespan compared to the average. All the different systems in the old mouse were improved – they handled glucose was better, their immune profile was better, the skin was better and the bones were better. We are now very excited about understanding how these mutations work, what kind of systems they affect and also understanding whether they show evolutionary conservation.

What do you mean by “evolutionary conservation”?
It means whether there are the same kinds of processes causing ageing in different organisms and it looks as if there are. Of course the critical question is whether the findings from the animal models apply to humans, so that we could intervene in human ageing with drugs. Right now it is a very exciting time to be in this subject.

So, are we going to live longer?
It could be a side effect of our research that people would live a bit longer, but they are living longer and longer anyway. The aim of the research we do is to make people healthier as they age by using discoveries from laboratory animals, translating them for humans and transferring them into drugs. The main goal is to improve the health and quality of life of people as they get closer to the end of it.