St Johnston academic exploring the grey areas of growing old

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Donegal academic Mark McAuley was hooked on growing old from a young age.

The doctor of science is now an expert in the ageing process - a subject of universal interest yet he’s quick to state that he’s yet to discover a fool proof way of slowing it down.

Having completed a doctoral scholarship at the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, the St Johnston man now works as an ageing researcher and lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and is a foremost authority on the subject.

Speaking to the ‘Journal’, the academic explained that his subject choice was something inspired by traumatic events in his own life. “Two of my grandparents lived very long lives but in their last few years of life suffered strokes, the pain and suffering they endured has had a profound impact on me, thus I believe it is very important that we all appreciate that investigating healthy and dignified ageing is something to be taken very seriously and that we all should have a right to age healthily.”

The subject further appealed to the academic because he believes a lot remains to be discovered in the study of research into ageing.

“I became interested in the ageing process after reading an article on ageing in the New Scientist magazine, during the final year of my degree; I was intrigued that so many questions about ageing remained unanswered, so from then I was hooked.

“From a biological perspective despite significant progress in science there is a lot about the ageing process that remains unknown. For example, although most of us assume that ageing begins quite late in life, what we are learning is that the mechanics of ageing are at play very early in life and a lot of these biological mechanisms remain to be deciphered.

Secondly, progress in health care has meant that as a population we are living longer. In the United Kingdom it is estimated that by the year 2050, that about 5% of the population will be over 85 years of age while 25% of the population will be over 65 years. Although, we can regard this as something to be celebrated, the extra few years of life that we have gained may not be healthy.”

Derry like the rest of Northern Ireland is on an ageing trajectory, so it stands to reason that more and more people are trying to battle it.

According to a report commissioned by the Northern Ireland assembly in 2011 it was estimated that by 2031, those individuals above 85 years of age in Northern Ireland will make up almost 4% of the entire population.

“It certainly is an important issue that the politicians and public alike in Northern Ireland should be aware of,” Dr McAuley says.

But he’s not quick to jump on the wagon with the many hundreds of people willing to offer advice on how to beat the ageing process.

“There are many pseudoscientists out there that like to give ‘advice’ on how we can age healthier. I don’t like to get drawn too much on this question as it is such a complex issue.

“All that we can do is to adhere to the hard scientific facts. What we are beginning to appreciate in biology is that everyone is very different. How one person responds to their environment in terms of diet, physical activity and stress can be different from someone else.

“More generally however, what we do know from population studies is that people that smoke, engage in limited physical activity and that have a poor diet are at an increased risk of developing diseases such heart disease and cancer as they get older.”

However, a change of home may be an option, as the doctor explains with his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek. “An island of Greece called Ikaria has recently had the spotlight thrown on it as the inhabitants appear to live very long and have healthy lives, perhaps due to their diet or lifestyle.

“So you could always emigrate there if you want to live longer,” he quips.

It’s far from easy trying to figure out how the ageing process works, Dr McAuley explains.

“It’s a very profound and, to a large extent, philosophical question. The honest answer is that we simply do not know. The fact that we do not know does not mean that we have absolutely no idea.

“There are many theories out there as to why we age. In the main the theories centre on understanding ageing from the point of view evolution.

“Our evolutionary ancestors lived in a lot harsher environment than we do today and early mortality would have been commonplace, so from an evolutionary point of view it was not necessary for us to have evolved the biological ‘equipment’ to keep us alive indefinitely as it would not be needed. Does this make any sense?” he laughs.

Dr McAuley employs many state of the art methods in his attempts to get to the bottom of one of the biggest questions in humanity - what makes us age.

“It is really important to say that there are many ways of conducting research into ageing.

For example, longitudinal studies can be used which track a population of individuals over an extended period of time. We can also examine individuals of varying ages and compare differences.

“However, the technique I use involves constructing computer models of biological systems and then running simulations over a long period of time to examine how the model changes with age.

“This technique has many advantages such as we are able to study a hypothetical individual over a long period of time. It also has ethical advantages and computers are really good at handling the complexities.”