Jena/Mainz. Over the past 150 years, life expectancy in Germany has nearly doubled. Statistically speaking, a child born today can be expected to reach an average age of 78.6 (for men) or 83.4 (for women). This rapid increase in life expectancy is not unique to Europe and North America but is a global development, although it began in Asia and Africa only in the 20th century. The United Nations has thus declared the years 2021–2030 to be the decade of healthy aging. After all, even more important than the maximum age is the question: How do people spend these extra years of life – healthy or frail, lonely or as part of a community? And what are the factors that determine this?
Scientists from 15 research institutes of the Leibniz Association have joined forces in the research alliance “Resilient Ageing” to study aging from a comprehensive perspective. They are taking a look at the individual biological aging process in connection with lifestyle, nutrition, education and other socioeconomic and sociopolitical factors. The aim of the research is to develop strategies at all levels so that more people can grow old in good health and society is not overwhelmed by rising healthcare costs.
Paradigm Shift in Research on Aging
To this end, the concept of resilience, originally developed in psychosocial research, was extended to biological research on aging. In this context, resilience means that people essentially have the resources – both biological and social – to remain healthy, despite the internal and external stress factors that can accompany aging. Funding for the new research alliance was approved by the Senate of the Leibniz Association on November 17, 2021, for an initial period of four years, beginning in 2022.
“We think there is a real paradigm shift in how we look at aging,” says the biologist Prof. Dr. Helen Morrison, who studies the molecular basis of the aging and regeneration of nerve cells at the Leibniz Institute on Aging – Fritz Lipmann Institute (FLI) in Jena and is a spokesperson of the alliance. “Instead of focusing on what fails when the organism ages, we see evidence that individuals show resilience.”
Thus, for example, studies have shown that certain older people can maintain their cognitive abilities even when the beta-amyloid plaques associated with dementia have been detected in their brains. “There are mechanisms of resilience not only in the brain but in all organs, and we want to understand them and harness them for healthy aging,” explains Prof. Dr. Oliver Tüscher, of the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research (LIR) in Mainz, who is a co-spokesperson of the research alliance.
Using the Adaptive Capacity of the Body
Whether or not someone is one of the elderly who, despite biological aging characteristics, experience virtually no deterioration in cognitive abilities, i.e., are resilient to brain aging – as in the example above – depends on many influencing factors. Operating from the hypothesis that not only the brain but also the human body in principle possesses these adaptive capacities, biologists, psychologists, ecologists, physicians, epidemiologists, nutritionists, social scientists and economists want to investigate these factors. These include genetic dispositions, health issues, diet and lifestyle, and also environmental influences, as well as income and education, the role of social status and recognition in society.
Combining Medical, Biological and Social Data
“Through the cooperation of the 15 Leibniz institutes, we can get closer to the goal of understanding why certain people age significantly slower than others and use this knowledge for the prevention of aging-associated diseases,” says Dr. Lieb, Scientific Director of the LIR. This holistic approach is possible because the 15 Leibniz institutes are contributing their findings and research methods to the new research network at the microscopic and macroscopic levels: from biological interactions at the molecular level in cell cultures and animal models to medical data, such as that available from Germany’s largest health study, NAKO, and the European EPIC study, as well as data from surveys conducted by the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), the largest and longest-running multidisciplinary long-term study in Germany. Due to the quantity and heterogeneity of the data, one focus of the group’s work is data analysis and data integration using machine learning methods.
Identifying Tipping Points
“Using this data, we want to find out which genetic and molecular factors contribute to wellbeing in the aging population, how they interact and which tipping points determine whether one follows the healthy or unhealthy aging trajectory,” says FLI-Prof. Morrison, summarizing the research agenda. “We want to predict and influence these tipping points in order to specifically promote resilient aging,” adds Prof. Jean Krutmann, co-spokesperson of the Leibniz Research Alliance and scientific director of the IUF – Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Düsseldorf.
Member Institutions of the Leibniz Research Alliance “Resilient Ageing”
BIPS – Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology, Bremen
DDZ – German Diabetes Center, Düsseldorf
DIFE – German Institute of Human Nutrition, Potsdam
DIW – German Institute for Economic Research, Berlin
FLI – Leibniz Institute on Aging – Fritz-Lipmann Institute, Jena
IfADo – Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, Dortmund
IfW – Kiel Institute for the World Economy
IGB – Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Berlin
IUF – Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine, Düsseldorf
IZW – Leibniz Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin
LIN – Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology, Magdeburg
LIR – Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research, Mainz
SGN – Leibniz Institute for Biodiversity and Earth System Research, Frankfurt am Main
SOEP – Socio-Economic Panel at the German Institute for Economic Research, Berlin
WZB – Berlin Social Science Center, Berlin
Spokespersons of the Research Alliance “Resilient Ageing”
Prof. Dr. Helen Morrison
Leader of the Research Group Nerve Regeneration
Leibniz Institute on Aging – Fritz Lipmann Institute (FLI)
Tel. +49 3641 65-6139
Prof. Dr. Klaus Lieb
Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research (LIR)
Tel.: +49 6131 89448-24