Above:  Professor David Ames, Director of the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI)

By Keryn Curtis

The Director of one of Australia’s leading centres of excellence in research on ageing has urged the incoming government to take a smart and measured, big picture approach to ageing-related research funding to win the biggest gains for all Australians in the future.

Director of the University of Melbourne affiliated National Ageing Research Institute (NARI), Professor David Ames, said that judicial expenditure in particular areas of research could have enormous positive outcomes for the health, care and wellbeing of the large cohort of older people in coming years but also for substantial cost savings across a range of areas of government expenditure.

“In 37 years, a quarter of Australians will be 65 and over, and more than three million will need aged care, together with programs and services that help older people stay and age well,” said Professor Ames.

“These are not insuperable problems but they need to be thought about.  There are effective ways of spending money and there are less effective ways. And there are a range of things in Australia that could be done better.”

Professor Ames said that a new government and new ministries always present an opportunity to review and try to enhance policies.

“If we put a fraction of the spending for aged care into ageing related research, I think we’d get a good response.

“For example, If you spend money in the science budget that contributes to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or a vaccine that can delay the onset of dementia, even for a few years, that would have a huge effect on health and social services spending, freeing up funds to be directed to other areas and improvements.

“But it also has knock-on effects with things like improving workforce participation for carers and the general independence and wellness of the older population. All these elements are interconnected to some extent.”

Above: Clinical Associate Professor Briony Dow, incoming national president of the Australian Association of Gerontology,

A whole of government approach

Incoming national president of the Australian Association of Gerontology, Clinical Associate Professor Briony Dow, echoed Professor Ames’ calls to make ageing research a priority, especially broad based research that focuses on healthy ageing and participation for older people.

“The focus to date has been very much on aged care and not so much on health and participation and we hope that this government can recognise the huge value in investing in ways to keep people healthy, independent and well – and out of hospital and residential care,” said Dr Dow.

She said there was an education role required to encourage the new government to see the larger picture and take a “whole of government approach” to ageing policy that would include a range of connected areas.

“This approach should include income support, age friendly environments, better public transport and health services that respond to the needs of older people – including older people with dementia and their carers,” she said.

“It also needs to include public housing that suits the needs of older people, incentives for older people to keep making a contribution via work, volunteering, and caring; and education that enables life-long learning.”

Dr Dow said the new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has some knowledge about carers from his regular support and participation in the annual Pollie Pedal event which in the last two years has raised funds for Carers Australia.

“Whether he knows that carers provide 80 per cent of care, including aged care, I’m not sure, but it seems to me that if you were looking for an area where you could make a really smart investment for big gains then you could look at how to support the mental and physical needs of carers,” she said.

Both Professor Ames and Dr Dow highlighted falls prevention and better hospital care for older people as logical, common sense areas for investment in research.

“Improving falls prevention for example, is really important because not only do you prevent injury and distress for people, but logically you will make huge savings in the health budget.

“I’d like to see a greater focus on promoting health messages. Logically, this will help to keep older people healthy and well longer and, importantly, out of hospital,” said Dr Dow.

“But also when they do have to go to hospital, we need to ensure they can get the best care so things aren’t made worse and it doesn’t lead to a raft of secondary problems.

“And then there is palliative care in residential aged care.  People should be allowed to die in the place where they live, not be moved to hospital, so palliative care expertise is essential, as well as better medical services generally in residential aged care.”

Dr Dow added that she hoped the new government’s focus on infrastructure will include government and non-government infrastructure that is older person friendly and enables their continued participation.

The right priorities

Professor Ames said Australia’s current investment in ageing related research was inadequate in enabling Australia to thrive in the context of the challenges posed by the ageing population.

“If you were CEO of BHP and you were investing the same proportionate amount of turnover in minerals and mining research as Australia does in medical research, you’d be sacked.  BHP understands how much you have to invest in research to remain successful,” he said.

“We need to identify those areas where we are spending a lot of money and where we are not at the cutting edge and say, is this the best use of resources?  Are these the right priorities?”

“We don’t need to build another Large Hadron Collider underneath Kosciusko, though we also can’t piggy back off everyone else’s research in everything.

“And we can’t wait for the Americans or the Japanese to sort it out for us.  We need to do some core research that is specific to us,” said Professor Ames.

“We are going to have to adapt to change in our own way – whether it’s the taxation system or contributing to efforts to delay the onset of dementia even by a few years – we need to be part of that.

“We look forward to discussing these issues with the new government,” he said.


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  1. I fully agree with the importance of ongoing research into all the community and individual issues arising from increasing personal longevity.

    However we also need to focus more strongly on how this information is accessed and used by individuals and their professional advisers.

    Just as we have committed long-term funding for improved financial literacy, we should also be more strongly funding programs which improve longevity awareness.

    As well as helping individuals take more informed responsibility for their remaining lifespan, we need to promote greater longevity awareness in their professional advisers in the areas of finance, health and employment.

    The incoming government needs to ensure that it maintains a clear understanding of how disparate parts of its policy may interact with longevity issues and so minimise the risks (and waste) from the ‘silo’ mentality which tends to prevail in bureaucracies.

    This means Longevity Awareness should be an ongoing strategic filter through which policies should pass before their approval for implementation.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with David Williams. The idea of a Longevity Awareness policy filter across all of the ageing issues we’re facing is a fantastic idea. The real big picture here is health literacy – getting the population at large to understand and more importantly appreciate why and how they should take responsibility to proactive manage their own long term health (as well as finance/employment and life purpose after traditional work). This means behavioural change.

    The govt needs to prioritise its efforts on translating the massive backlog we have in research into information that can be accessed and used by individuals. More money to grow the research backlog which is out of reach of the public is unproductive. We need new services that educate and facilitate (with quality assurance) all the preventative and enhancing (capacity building) knowledge science already has developed into the public domain.

    We have to be very realistic about any scientists anywhere in the world finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or developing a vaccine that can delay the onset of dementia. Researchers have been telling us for at least 15 years that a cure is only 5 years away, yet all the pharmaceutical trials continue to fail to get beyond phase 3. Whereas the lifestyle factors for delaying cognitive decline are well understood in the scientific literature but not well publicised in the population.

    If we take a smart and measured, big picture approach to ageing, then translational efforts will win the biggest gains for all Australians both NOW and in the future. Hopefully Tony Abbott and his team will look through a Longevity Awareness policy filter. They might discover that it’s much more productive in terms of cost and risk to piggy-back off the Americans, Japanese, etc…helping to translate their successful research efforts. In fact, Australia has one of the worst medical basic research to translation ratio’s in the world. We really need to address this issue and help develop both commercial (new businesses) and government services that support the ageing population living enriched and integrated lives on a strong platform of good health.

    Steve Zanon, Director Proactive Ageing

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