COVID-19 represents an unprecedented health, social and economic challenge in Australia and around the world. Support Burnet’s COVID-19 emergency response today.
As the world prepares for an ageing population, Burnet’s new Healthy Ageing Program is looking at ways the Institute’s research breadth and expertise can improve physical, mental and social wellbeing throughout life and sustain this into old age.
Aligned with Burnet’s vision of ‘equity through better health’ the Program has a focus on healthy ageing in vulnerable populations, particularly in neighbouring countries to Australia and in the LGBTI community.
In Australia, 15 per cent of the population in 2016 were aged over 65. In 2056 that percentage is expected to rise to 22 per cent, placing an increased burden on health care services treating age-related diseases such as chronic heart disease, type two diabetes and hypertension, a situation also reflected globally.
Program Director of Healthy Ageing, Professor Suzanne Crowe AM said it may surprise people that the precursors of these age-related diseases were often established before birth.
“It’s the environment the growing baby is subjected to in the mother’s womb in early infancy that can predispose that infant to metabolic dysfunction – problems in the body that relate to bone, cholesterol, coagulation (ability of the blood to clot) and mitochondria (organelles that create energy for cells),” Professor Crowe said.
“These changes in the body result in age-related diseases in later life.”
Low weight at birth and during infancy, followed by accelerated weight gain from 3-11 years, have been shown to predict later risk for certain non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
“It may surprise people to learn that the precursors of age-related diseases were often established before birth.” – Professor Suzanne Crowe AM
Burnet’s Healthy Ageing projects include development of tools to identify risk of NCDs, research into the cause of inflammation that underpins development of NCDs, and the study of the role of immune cells called monocytes in early cardiovascular disease.
Burnet researchers are aiming to discover ways to turn off the harmful genes that contribute to the development of diseases associated with old age. We are also assessing the needs of older individuals living with HIV, particularly their preparedness to transition from independent to dependent living.
Other projects investigate the contribution of autoantibodies that attack the body’s tissues to the ageing process, and the link between the immune system and the development of frailty.
Deputy Program Director of Healthy Ageing, Dr Anna Hearps said chronic viral infections such as HIV or hepatitis C often increased inflammation and put pressure on the body’s immune system, effectively causing it to age prematurely.
“For example a great number of people are infected with a herpes-family virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV), without even knowing it. In some people, up to a quarter of their immune defences responsible for killing infected cells are constantly diverted into suppressing this one virus, which over the long term can lead to immunosenescence, or exhaustion of the immune system,” Dr Hearps said.
Burnet researchers are also working to address age-related problems for people living with HIV, who can be afflicted by frailty, cardiovascular disease, cancers and dementia at an earlier age than the general population.