Healthy Ageing: pursuing the ‘Holy Grail’ in Brussels

Written by Charlotte Geerdink (European Advisor for Innovation at SwissCore) and Maryline Maillard (STC, Swiss Mission to the EU)

This contribution by SwissCore, the Swiss contact office for European research, innovation and education in Brussels and the Mission of Switzerland to the EU, provides an overview of EU research and innovation programmes and instruments that are targeted at healthy ageing.

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Just imagine you would live in a world in which more than one fourth of the population would be 65 years and older. Imagine that those over 65 years old would also be in a healthy condition, both physically and mentally. Whereas the first sentence is not mere imagination but will become reality in 2060, the second sentence is not so easy to achieve. The ‘holy grail’ of healthy ageing has not been found yet although there are numerous studies pointing to the importance of daily exercise, no (excessive use of) alcohol, no smoking, avoiding processed foods and no stress to enjoy a life in excellent conditions until you end up between six boards. In short, this is nothing new. But a full fit-to-all ‘healthy ageing’ package does not exist (yet). This also has to do with the fact that one cannot look at the mass only. Increasingly, researchers have understood that personalized health as well as preventive measures can really make a change. Researchers are trying to look for answers and find them, to also find out that the answers lead to more questions. Hence, the research is far from done. Ageing is very tangible – given nothing strange will happen along the way in advancing into life – because we will all experience it. Healthy ageing is also very tangible because almost all people want to experience it in order to live a longer live in good conditions.

Fortunately, science helps us to better understand the complex processes underlying healthy ageing. Also fortunately, researchers team up across the globe to find answers together in order to avoid a duplication of work and therefore, they rather pool their forces. And a last fortunate fact is that healthy ageing has political priority at EU level. This means that there is also, although never enough, money available to conduct research at European level on healthy ageing. The European Research Council (ERC) grants fund excellent individual researchers among others in the field of health. But in addition in terms of collaboration, the European Commission has designed, albeit funded by its own or together with member states and stakeholder organisations, the following programmes:

  • Horizon 2020 work programme ‘Health, Demograhic Change and Well-Being’

This programme looks into getting a better understanding of the causes and mechanisms underlying health, healthy ageing and disease as well as to improve our ability to monitor health and to prevent, detect, treat and manage disease. It also investigates how to support older persons to remain active and healthy. The bi-annual work programme with annual calls has a total budget of €7.4 billion for 2014-2020. Switzerland can participate as third industrialised country in this programme.

  • The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI)

Already operational since 2008 and since 2014 in its second phase. IMI wants to improve health by speeding up the development of, and patient access to, innovative medicines, specifically in areas where there is an unmet medical need. It does this by facilitating collaboration between the key players involved in healthcare research, including universities, the pharmaceutical and other industries, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), patient organisations, and medicines regulators. It funds for example projects to test how well a person is ageing. It has a budget of €3.3 billion for 2014-2020. Switzerland can participate as third industrialised country in this programme.

  • The Joint Programming Initiative ‘More Years, Better Lives – The Potential and Challenges of Demographic Change’

This initiative seeks to enhance coordination and collaboration between European and national research programmes related to demographic change. It brings together different research programmes and researchers from various disciplines. On the Swiss side, this programme is managed by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI).

  • The Joint Programming Initiative ‘A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life’

The vision of this JPI is that by 2030 all citizens will have the motivation, ability and opportunity to consume a healthy diet from a variety of foods, have healthy levels of physical activity and that the incidence of diet-related diseases will have decreased significantly. On the Swiss side, this programme is managed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

  • The Active and Assisted Living Programme (AAL)

Also in its second phase and started in 2008 just like IMI, the Active and Assistive Living (AAL) programme funds projects in public-private partnership in the field of information and communication technology (ICT) for active and healthy ageing. The overall objective of AAL is to enhance the quality of life of older adults while strengthening the industrial base in Europe through the use of ICT. Projects include for example the development of an ICT-based Virtual Collaborative Social Living Community for Elderly people or the development an innovative, integrated system aiming at prevention and management of the problems that can occur to elderly persons as a result of chronic progressive diseases. It has an estimated budget of € 700 million for 2014 until 2020. From 26-28 September, the annual AAL Forum will be held in St.Gallen, Switzerland. The AAL is from the Swiss side managed by SERI.

  • The European Innovation Partnership for Active and Healthy Ageing (EIP AHA)

Launched in 2011, the aim of the EIP is to increase the healthy life years of EU citizens by two years by 2020 in order to improve the health and quality of life, to ensure sustainable health systems and to strengthen the competitiveness of the EU health industry. A particular focus is set on older people. In the EIP AHA, not only university hospitals and pharma companies cooperate together, but also patient organisations, health insurance companies, SMEs and governmental authorities. By means of convening all actors, solutions can be tested appropriately and realistically, ultimately leading from an idea to a new product or service in the market. Swiss interested parties can participate by bringing in their own knowledge in the EIP AHA Action Groups and Marketplace.

All programmes mentioned above are partly funded by the budget of the above mentioned Horizon 2020 work programme ‘Health, Demograhic Change and Well-Being’.

This Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) on Health which was set up in 2015, promotes entrepreneurship and innovates in healthy living and active ageing, with the aim to improve quality of life and healthcare across Europe. Funding comes partly from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) and from external actors such as business and universities. Switzerland can participate as third country in the KICs as two thirds of the partners need to be EU member state or associate country and one third can come from anywhere in the world.

As we clarified in this post, there’s a vast array of opportunities for funding healthy ageing research and innovation in Europe. Researchers, but also other stakeholders in the healthy ageing process, work closely together to bring us closer to lasting solutions and perhaps in the end still, to the ‘Holy Grail’ of Healthy Ageing. How’s that for a European Research Council (ERC) grant or Nobel Prize?!

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