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British Academy debate: The best years of our lives? Body, brain and well-being

by on April 30, 2014

Last night saw the third and final debate in the excellent British Academy series on ageing.  Whilst we weren’t able to attend, the wonders of social media allow us to bring you some extracts from the programme.  The British Academy website will host a video of the event in due course and in the meantime, here is a link to their webpage featuring an insightful contribution by Mary Beard to the earlier debate on negative representations of older people.

The third debate examined the consequences of an ageing body and whether physical development of ageing really affects how we can live? It posed the question as to whether it’s time to rethink what we perceive an older body is capable of, and should policy-makers, politicians and business leaders rethink issues such as retirement and flexible working, to enable a longer, fuller life.

The speakers last night were Professor Ian Deary (University of Edinburgh) and Professor Catherine Ward Thompson (University of Edinburgh) with Discussants Professor James Goodwin, Head of Research, Age UK, and Henry Simmons, Chief Executive, Alzheimer Scotland. These are a selection of points made by the panel:

In terms of ageing, we don’t all follow the average. There are individual differences in decline of cognitive skills. Smart kids become smart old people, but increased social or intellectual activity shows no effect on cognitive skills in old age. Physical activity might just might affect cognitive health but the evidence is mixed. Bilingualism however might protect the brain.  ONS research shows that people are happiest between the ages of 60 and 80. And age 60 represents the pinnacle for our vocabulary powers (Ian Deary).

In the context of intergenerational challenges and opportunities, intergenerational activity is absolutely vital. One way to tackle ageism is to change the law, but the other way is to change perceptions that are present in society (James Goodwin). The media say things about old people which if said about any other social group would be heavily criticised. Both older and younger people need to learn to appreciate each other’s stories, and treat each other as individuals (Ian Deary).

With regard to how the outdoor environment can improve the ageing proces, we need inclusive design for older people to enable getting outdoors. This includes safe, accessible, and navigable streets. Worryingly, older people in sheltered housing or residential care are 3 times less likely than other older people to get out and about outdoors (Catharine Ward Thompson).

Nothwithstanding that ageing affects us all, it takes real political courage to take the longitudinal view and focuses on prevention and a supportive society (Henry Simmons).

With our thanks to @britac_news, @prospect_uk, @MannyTulle, @valeriecarr and @ClaireJStevens for social media input.

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