For better ageing philosophies, vote for Berlin


SECOND OPINION:My own experience in Ireland has been often dispiriting

WHETHER WE in Ireland look to Berlin or to Boston is a question that has lost none of its relevance over the years. It came afresh to my mind last week as I took part in a networking conference, Researchers in Ageing, organised by the Max Planck Institutes in a small town near Munich.

The Max Planck Institutes is an extraordinary collaborative enterprise spread throughout Germany (and sometimes farther afield) which has generated 17 Nobel laureates since it was founded in 1948. Largely funded by the German government, it is notable for its excellence and the breadth of vision of its 80 institutes – from astrophysics to anthropology, ornithology to oceanography, molecular biology to mathematics.

The institutes are not just concentrated in the major cities but distributed across the country in often modestly-sized towns, a remarkable achievement in its own right. Planned, consensual and – from the evidence of this meeting – very well networked, it is a phenomenon from which we in Ireland might have learned about real decentralisation.

Its institutes for research into ageing share this pattern. The prestigious Demographic Institute is based in the former East German port town of Rostock, with the Biology of Ageing due to move into a striking new building in Cologne: in addition, the network supports researchers in other institutes, such as law or phonetics, building a true interdisciplinary research base.

Their research has really opened new insights into ageing and generated hope for advances in supporting us all in our old age. For example, the Rostock researchers showed it is never too late to intervene for older people in a fascinating study which looked at death rates of very old people in West and East Germany before and after the fall of the Wall.

Prior to unification, East Germans in their 80s and 90s died much sooner than their Western counterparts. Exposed to West German pension, social and medical supports, within a few years their life expectancy dramatically improved to match that in the West: a rallying cry against nihilism and defeatism in the face of age-related disease and disability.

Last week’s meeting brought junior and senior researchers from across Germany together with a handful of international experts for a group immersion in the broad experience that is gerontology, the sciences of ageing.

As befits one of the most subtle and complex stages of life, the presentations covered a jaw-dropping amount of ground: ageing and death in classical civilisation from a professor of classics; the intersection of moral values and economics in the undertaking industry; older workers, economics and finances; suicide in later life viewed from the perspectives of developmental psychology and brain imaging; to name but a few.

Equally refreshing was the mix of nationalities, from as wide afield as Ethiopia and Armenia, and including an Irish researcher on secondment from DCU, and the interchanges at coffee breaks and dinner combined an academic ferment but also a lot of fun.

As one of my own specific interests is the illumination of the longevity dividend – ie, those things that we do better with age – I was particularly fascinated to learn of an anthropology study in an indigenous tribe which showed that the older hunters, despite running more slowly and firing arrows with less force, returned home with the highest weight of meat.

I came away enriched not only in knowledge but also in the sense of attachment to an international network of those who both care about ageing but also seek high standards of research to validate future policy and practice.

On a slightly sadder note, I reflected that we needed to more overtly look to Berlin in terms of cohesiveness, shared vision and openness in our research communities. My own experience in Ireland has been often dispiriting, with some sources of funding generating divisive and secretive behaviour within quite small groupings of researchers.

We are fortunate in the academic calibre of the increasing numbers of those interested in research in ageing in Ireland: what a force we might be if we could forge open, trusting and collaborative philosophies and networks that allowed us to harness this force for not only better ageing in Ireland, but also in Europe. My vote rests firmly with Berlin.

Prof Des O’Neill is a consultant in geriatric and stroke medicine