The FGCSIC Report on R&D on Ageing, published by the Foundation in late 2010, identified a series of scientific areas in which research into ageing was most active. It HIGHLIGHTSProfile: Clara Parapar Barrera
should come as no surprise that much of the research focuses on neuroscience and biomedical aspects, as these are fields in which ageing —essentially a biological problem— has the biggest impact. However, we also identified a series of emerging fields in which research on ageing-related topics has grown rapidly in recent years. These emerging fields concern social aspects of ageing and technology applications (home automation, information technologies, new materials, etc.).
The research trends identified were based on studies of developments in various fields over the last twenty years. The analysis carried out did not allow us to identify specific aspects of research or future trends, however.
To supplement the information in the FGCSIC report we conducted a foresight survey to get a preview of future trends in ageing-related research. The process of preparing the scientific foresight survey drew on the insights gained from writing the FGCSIC’s report on ageing. While preparing the report we identified a large group of scientists in Spain and abroad whose research was in some way related, directly or directly, to ageing. This group formed the basis of our sample universe for the foresight survey.
The survey was conducted online using a dedicated website where users could post their comments either anonymously or identifying author-ship.
In addition to responses from respondents who independently volunteered responses, we also sent a personalised query to each of the scientists identified in our FGCSIC report on R&D into ageing. Approximately 33,700 researchers took part in the survey.
The survey was active from July to November 2011, during which time a total of 1,983 respondents completed some or all of the sections of the questionnaire. Reponses were drawn Technological aspects were given lower scores in terms of research priorities
from a wide geographical base. The majority were from the United States and the European Union (with Spain, the United Kingdom and Italy being the countries from which most responses were received). The distribution of responses by country reflected the distribution of the queries sent out fairly closely.
Although the survey was open to any member of the public accessing the website, the profile of the questionnaires received was clearly slanted towards individuals closest to the scientific and academic worlds, both in Spain and elsewhere in the world. This should come as no surprise, given that this was the subset we had asked to help us prepare our study.
The distribution of the surveys received, with respect to the respondent’s area or sector of activity, showed a clear predominance of respondents in medical and life sciences, together accounting for almost 60% worldwide and slightly more than 45% in Spain.
Impact of ageing
The respondents were asked to assess the impact of ageing on several fields: the individual, the family, society, the economy, sustainability, progress and culture. Most participants agreed that ageing would have a major impact on individuals, families and society (in that order), whereas they considered that the impact on progress and culture would be smaller. The difference in how Spanish respondents and those from elsewhere in the world regarded the relative impact of ageing in different areas was not particularly large, although differences were apparent in the relative assessment within each area. For example, almost 90% of Spanish respondents anticipated the impact of ageing on the individual to be high or very high. Of other respondents, only 75% rated it thus.
Research priorities in ageing
Respondents were asked to assign research priorities in the ageing field. In general terms, the vast majority thought that research into ageing should be given high priority (80.2% of respondents worldwide, 73.6% of Spaniards) or medium priority (18.2% worldwide and 24.3% of Spaniards), while only 2% of Spanish or worldwide respondents thought it deserved low priority.
When asked about the fields of ageing which they considered to be of highest priority for research, around 40% of respondents —both Spanish and worldwide— agreed80.2% of respondents thought that research into ageing should be given high priority
on the importance of research into neurological issues (tackling cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases) and independence and wellbeing in old age (delaying the age of ageing, i.e. increasing functional independence and wellbeing).
Technological aspects were given lower scores (although they remained significant) in terms of research priorities in ageing. Worldwide, social improvements and the participation of the elderly were given high priority, appearing in fourth position. In Spain, their priority was slightly lower, in sixth position, behind issues relating to cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Research trends in ageing
The survey’s most ambitious goal was to trace out future trends in ageing-related research. Participants responded to these questions in free-text form. The answers were then analysed and aggregated into conceptual blocks. Respondent qualified their suggested avenues of research as being new or likely to grow and develop, or alternative, as being likely decline or disappear in the future.
In total, participants listed some 800 research trends. Of these, just over 500 were forecast to grow and develop in the future, whereas around 300 were predicted to decline or disappear. For the purposes of analysis, these trends were grouped into nine conceptual blocks as shown in Table 1.
The biggest growth was estimated in the block of trends corresponding to the technological aspects of ageing, which aggregates all the trends relating to research and development aimed at solutions for ageing-related issues from fields not directly related to the process itself. For example, research into brain-computer interfaces stand out in this group, which is envisaged as being a growth trend over the next ten years.
This same block also includes development in telemedicine, robotics, home automation, urban planning, information technology, communications and advanced prostheses, which are expected to develop over a timescale of 8 to 20 years.
Of all the individual trends identified, those for which most growth was envisaged were those relating to care for the elderly, tissue and organ regeneration, stem cells, cognitive decline and neurodegeneration, above all as regards aspects relating to post-deterioration rehabilitation, and delaying ageing. Research into nutrition and ageing was also given a good score as a future trend by respondents.
Cardiovascular aspects of ageing and cancer remain clear active trends in the near and medium term.
Among the trends predicted to decline or disappear are those relating to increasing life expectancy. It seems that the trends in this area are becoming more focused on There was a consensus among respondents that ageing would have a big impact on the individual, family and society, in that order
“living better” (delaying ageing) rather than simply “living longer.”
Pharmacological treatments for senile dementia, current anti-ageing treatments, or research into “wonder drugs” are also predicted to decline. In the case of Alzheimer’s research, the survey suggested an increase in research into prevention, treatment and vaccines against Alzheimer’s disease over the coming years. By contrast, research relating to the beta-amyloid protein in Alzheimer’s seems to be losing ground.
In the social area, the trends that look set to gain traction over the years ahead are those relating to changes in the social model, such as improving elderly people’s integration in society, keeping older people in the workforce, or helping them get back into work, reversing previous policies to promote early-retirement, and addressing the economic aspects of ageing.
Among the areas of basic research into ageing, respondents foresee positive trends in those areas relating to the molecular, cellular and evolutionary basis and genetics of ageing. On the other hand, the interest in oxidative processes relating to ageing appeared to be set to decline.
The detailed analysis of the information obtained from the survey, sketched out here in summary form, will be published in a future FGCSIC report.