Well Living Lab expert: Aging in the Netherlands is Changing.
Well Living Lab Scientific Advisory Board member Folkert Kuipers, Ph.D. recently spoke at Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation Speaker Series, Thinking Differently. Dr. Kuipers is the Professor of Pediatrics and head of the Laboratory of Pediatrics at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), in Groningen, Netherlands where researchers are putting into place mechanisms to support healthy aging while addressing associated societal concerns, such as a shrinking workforce to care for the elderly. Current research is also being conducted on Blue Zones, and if they can be created and sustained intentionally to support a healthy life span.
The Blue Zone concept stemmed from demographic work by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain published in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology. They focused on geographical regions in the world with the highest longevity and health span – dubbing them as Blue Zones. Greater awareness began in 2005 when National Geographic did a cover story called “The Secrets of a Long Life”, by Dan Buettner. Buettner then went on the write the book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. The elements of Blue Zones are becoming increasingly understood, and predictably, efforts are now being made to re-create them as a means to support health and healthy aging in the home.
Dr. Folkert shared details about additional efforts in the Northern part of the Netherlands surrounding Groningen. Groningen is a city of 200K people and the efforts are being lead by the University Medial Center of Groningen — the only university with a focus on four societal challenges they are hoping to affect, including healthy aging, energy transition, sustainable society and Big Data management.
Why focus on Healthy Aging?
The population in the Netherlands is aging rapidly while growth is at a standstill. While immigration is rising, there is a looming shortage of healthcare professionals and the current demographics are not able to support the growing aging population. With a societal prevalence of age-related, chronic diseases and an especially high incident of obesity, cancer, COPD, Cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, the Netherlands are facing many challenges that we in the United States can relate to.
It’s a simple vision, “Help people live longer in their houses.” The added complexity to this geographical location is the damage that has been done in the provenance of Groningen from frequent earthquakes. Regardless, this section of the Netherlands was ripe to create a bold ambition, to turn the Northern Netherlands into a man-made Blue Zone. It began with some obvious starts, making Groningen a smoke-free city, and embracing sports – soccer and cycling in particular – for both the young and the aging. A large part of this included communication and public service announcements both in person at events, and through online resources that support and cover topics of fitness and nutrition. Efforts sought to education the public on the correlation between what we do when we are younger and how it impacts us as we get older throughout the phases of our lifespan.
Villages hurt by earthquakes can be a test-bed for European and perhaps world-wide correlation, spanning various interventions throughout our lifespan and their impact(s) on healthier aging. Since these began only a few years ago, time is needed to realize any impact, but signs are positive given high engagement and energy.
When asked about the approach and methodology Kuiper envisioned, he stated that scientists should be scientists, and that others should translate the science into real applications. This was designed into the study. The approach to healthy aging in the Netherlands is a systematic spectrum that includes developing more improved and focused delivery of Health Education at Primary Schools, teaching young students how behaviors that begin when young, impact one’s later years in life. Along with programs like Hospital @ Home, and the EMBRACE program – a collaboration with other care institutions and insurers – other organizations help to deliver support and care to the elderly in villages and into their homes.
Following Dr. Kuipers talk, a panel lead by Douglas Wood, MD, Mayo Clinic Cardiologist and Medical Director of the Center for Innovation noted how language is moving away from words calling out chronic disease, and focusing instead on healthy aging and life-span — another intentional shift. Nathan LeBrasseur, MS, PhD, Director of Healthy Aging and Independent Living program at Mayo Clinic’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging reminded us that Aging is a life-long and natural process impacted by early life choices. The panel left us with the question: Are we measuring the wrong things today? Here in the states, we are measuring survival in years, and not the years of thriving and role functioning.
The World Heath Organization defines health not as the absence of disease, but by the ability for one to cope – navigating any resistance or strife encountered – to live a life of well-being. The lack of resiliency is improved by social connectedness and spirituality – and a critical factor to help people thrive when aging.
Our ideal aging future rests on a life-course that changes our perspective of “well-being” and reduces the burden of disease on society. Intervention is not the answer – prevention and systemic support is the ideal future state.