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URPP Dynamics of Healthy Aging

Leading the Way in Research on Aging

People are living ever longer. How can they maintain their health and quality of life in old age? This is what the URPP Dynamics of Healthy Aging has been studying for the last 12 years in 22 sub-projects. Director Mike Martin takes a look back.
Carole Scheidegger; English translation by Gemma Brown
Two senior citizens taking a selfie
The URPP Dynamics of Healthy Aging also used smartphones to study the activities of older people in detail. (Image: Jacob Wackerhausen/istockphoto)

Mike Martin, the URPP Dynamics of Healthy Aging was designed to find out how people can age healthily. What are the key results?

Mike Martin: Until now, research has mainly focused on how diseases can be prevented in old age. But we’ve discovered that people living with one or even several diseases can still maintain a high level of functional ability. Based on these insights a new definition was developed, which was even adopted by WHO: healthy aging is when people can continue to do what they value. Earlier research looked at whether activities such as music or sport are best for aging. But we’ve now recognized that what we primarily need to provide are decision-making tools so that people can figure out what they value and what matters to them.

Which of the URPP’s findings did you personally find the most surprising?

The diverse nature of healthy aging. People are very creative in this phase of life. They want to continue to make a meaningful contribution to society and are looking for new ways to do so. What I also found surprising was the influence of people’s environments, for example services available in their local communities. Interventions should therefore be multifaceted and offer bespoke options to achieve optimal outcomes.

Mike Martin

Healthy aging is when people can continue to do what they value.

Mike Martin
Director of the URPP Dynamics of Healthy Aging

Were there any other surprising findings?

It was amazing how well the technology that was used in a number of URPP projects was accepted. One of the ways we investigated study participants’ activities was using smartphones. In 2012, when the URPP launched, they had only been on the market for five years. Initially, there were fears that participants wouldn’t be prepared to use these types of technical devices. But that didn’t turn out to be true at all. This allowed us to collect what we call real world data in a targeted way. We successfully coordinated a number of very different longitudinal studies, some of which last 20 years. The studies involve a total of around 250,000 people and 3 million pieces of data.

How has the relevance of the URPP topic of healthy aging changed over the last 12 years?

Purely in terms of numbers, the topic has become much more relevant: in 2012, Switzerland had a population of 8 million, including 1.14 million over-65s, and now it has a population of 9 million and 1.7 million over-65s. What’s even more crucial, however, is the increased need for a nuanced approach. Before, innovations focused on reducing costs in healthcare, for example through the early diagnosis of dementia. In Switzerland, 150,000 over-65s are affected by dementia. But that also means that 1.6 million people aged 65 or over are not. And even among those affected, many are able to navigate 95 percent of everyday situations. Now, it’s about recognizing and promoting the value that older people bring to society by taking a nuanced view of their skills and interests. This view prevents exclusion and promotes openness to new developments, which in turn favors social development.

To better understand the dynamics of healthy aging, 22 research projects were conducted – with many positive results. Does society need to rethink its negative view of aging?

One of our current projects is looking at age-related stereotypes. They confirm very clearly what we know – that these stereotypes entail very high costs and have practical implications. People who know that they can do what matters to them regardless of their age have a higher life expectancy than those who can’t say that about themselves. Seven and a half years higher! The obstacles are not normally legal but may be social or structural.

How does stereotyping play out?

I would describe it more as over-generalizing: often, all those aged 65 or over are lumped together. In Switzerland, this group comprises people aged 65 to 115 – that’s a 50-year difference. No one would ever think that everyone aged 0 to 50 has the same needs. We in the URPP also initially made the mistake of putting all over-65s in one category as if they were a homogeneous group. But age doesn’t tell you much about a person. If I only know someone’s age, I know hardly anything about them.

How has the URPP benefited society?

It has broadened our understanding of age-related phenomena. Instead of focusing on diseases, the URPP has developed a holistic view of aging. We’ve also created a comprehensive, multimodal database. This facilitates international collaboration and promotes social innovation and value creation, which in the long term will lead to cost savings in healthcare.

How is your URPP positioned within the international research landscape on healthy aging?

The WHO Collaborating Center Plus (WHO-CC +) Network for Healthy Aging was set up in the summer of 2018. It comprises WHO collaborating centers and other institutions that focus specifically or indirectly on aging and health. On account of the URPP we were able to take the lead in this network. Research into aging was aligned exactly with the model that we developed in Zurich. That of course made us really proud. The University of Zurich is thus positioning itself as a pioneer in a modern, age-integrated society.

Now, it’s about recognizing and promoting the value that older people bring to society.

Mike Martin
Director of the URPP Dynamics of Healthy Aging

The URPPs are interdisciplinary. How did that impact your project?

We successfully practiced productive interdisciplinarity. It wasn’t the case that we just happened to be working on the same topic with every discipline working separately. This productive cooperation between psychology, law, earth science, ethics, data science, and medicine gave rise to new possibilities, for example in data collection.

When you look back at the 12-year history of the URPP Dynamics of Healthy Aging, what was your own personal highlight?

The fact that WHO was interested in us and our work and adopted the model of healthy aging is a major highlight for me. It shows that we are pioneers in this field. And it rewards an approach that is cultivated across the board at UZH: that we start by asking the right questions.

What’s next?

Our findings have been carried over to the Healthy Longevity Center. This will allow us to combine research and innovation. We’re currently building a network with partners from the public and private sectors. The URPP laid the foundations for this, and we’d never have got to where we are now without it.

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