Ageing research and the VELUX FONDEN

Ageing research and the VELUX FONDEN
VELUX FONDEN-funded research is investigating the contribution elderly people can make to society, the effect of growing old on cognitive function, and the interactions between ageing and cancer and medicine

Ane Hendriksen sets out the VELUX FONDEN’s commitment to supporting ageing research projects that contribute to improving the quality of life for elderly people.

By 2050 the number of people aged 60 or over is expected to more than double from 962 million to a staggering 2.1 billion. Combined with consistently low birth rates, population ageing is poised to transform societies across the globe and demands urgent solutions from policymakers, healthcare providers and employers alike. Against this background, the VELUX FONDEN is committed to supporting ageing research and innovative, interdisciplinary projects that enhance the quality of life of elderly people and inform the care and services they receive.

To this end, in 2017 the Denmark-based foundation allocated DKK 20 million (~€3m) to research exploring medication use and rehabilitation among the elderly, interventions to improve the treatment and survival of older people with cancer, and collaborative ventures between gerontology and the humanities.

Here, Ane Hendriksen, the foundation’s executive director, reflects on the VELUX FONDEN’s role in fostering a stronger Danish ageing research community and the contribution it has made to our understanding of the ageing process worldwide.

Why has VELUX FONDEN made ageing research one of its priority areas, and how did it choose its four specific focus areas?

The VELUX FONDEN was established in 1981 by graduate engineer Villum Kann Rasmussen. He was the founder of the VELUX skylight window company and other companies in the VKR group. The VELUX FONDEN is a philanthropic foundation that supports scientific, social and environmental projects. The statutes of the foundation emphasise grants to active senior citizens, ophthalmology and ageing research. So, the foundation has always been involved in ageing research.

Kann Rasmussen – who was 72 years old when he established the foundation – saw a rising youth fixation in society in the early 1980s. He was curious about the role of elderly people in society: how can elderly people contribute to society? What happens to your physical and mental capabilities as you get older? And what do you bring to the table – so to speak – when you have lived a long time?

We develop our strategy through close dialogues with the research community and with attention to age-related healthcare issues in Danish society. Are there particular themes that call for further research and where quality of life in the ageing population is failing? We try to identify these themes because we feel a responsibility to contribute to the wellbeing of senior citizens, particularly the most vulnerable elderly, who aren’t necessarily able to attract much attention or funding to research relevant for them.

Since 2015 we have had four focus areas in ageing research and we expect to keep these for the coming years:

1) Rehabilitation of the elderly;
2) Senior citizens with cancer;
3) Senior citizens and medicine; and
4) Research in humanities and in ageing.

The VELUX FONDEN first provided grants for rehabilitation back in 2005 when we allocated funding to five PhD projects, a professor chair and a PhD summer school in rehabilitation.

Since 2015 we have granted postdoctoral fellowships and up until now we have supported seven fellowships. 2018 is the first time that we are contributing to the call from the EU Joint Programme – Neurodegenerative Disease Research (JPND). We noted their focus on user/patient involvement and rehabilitation and saw a good fit with our own focus area.

Also, we really would like to promote more international collaboration in ageing research and see this as a good opportunity to do so.

Our focus areas in senior citizens and cancer and senior citizens and medicine have also been part of our strategy since 2015, when we identified these as areas where a strengthened research focus is much needed.

Most cancer patients are elderly and often suffer from other diseases, as well. This gives them a worse treatment outcome than younger mono-ill patients. However, there is only little attention on this fact. Partly the outcome is because the ageing body tolerates and processes medication differently to the young body. This is also why certain medications should not be prescribed to senior citizens to the degree with which we see today.

And with our latest focus on senior citizens and medication we want to promote research about potentially harmful medications for the elderly.

With our focus areas we want to help close the knowledge gap in these areas and promote research that can contribute to a better quality of life for elderly people suffering from cancer or other chronic diseases.

Looking back what contribution has VELUX FONDEN made to improving the quality of life of elderly people and furthering our understanding of ageing?

Since 2000 we have supported the work of Professor Kaare Christensen at the Danish Ageing Research Centre of the University of Southern Denmark. The findings of his research group are a good example of what we strive to achieve through our grants.

Basically, their research has shown that not only are more individuals attaining the highest ages, but that they do so at a higher level of functioning, not least intellectually, than in the past, and that there are grounds to expect this positive trend to continue.

Some of their key findings include:

  • Ageing can be influenced, even among the oldest old;
  • Many more people are attaining the highest ages with their cognitive faculties relatively intact;
  • The elderly of the future can be expected to be even better functioning;
  • Physical appearance is a good biomarker of the ageing processes among the elderly; and
  • Genetic factors significantly influence life expectancy and functioning.

The results have been widely published in the scientific community but have also attracted considerable attention from mainstream media and they do a lot of outreach activities, presenting their results to the wider society.

What key factors does VELUX FONDEN look for when evaluating applications for its gerontology research calls?
We look for three things when evaluating applications:
1) Is the research idea novel for the focus area?
2) Is it a strong candidate, would a grant support or assist career opportunities, and is it a good research environment? and
3) Does the project include user/patient involvement – both in the design of the research questions, in reference groups or panels involved in designing the study?

How far has VELUX FONDEN contributed to making ageing research a priority in Denmark more widely? Do you think there is enough attention on this topic at the national level, or does a ‘youth fixation’ persist?

For many years we were the only foundation in Denmark with a focus on ageing research, but in recent years, several other philanthropic and commercial foundations also have gotten engaged in ageing research. At the same time the demographic challenge of an ageing European population has become evident to researchers as well as decision makers and states.

Altogether, this has led to a strong research environment in Danish ageing research – both in groundbreaking basic research looking at how the human organism and organs age and in epidemiological research looking at how the environment and our living conditions help shape the ageing process. We also see many interdisciplinary and translational projects.

Other research areas are also beginning to attract more attention such as nurse-led research or health service research. We also see projects where researchers from the humanities work closely with traditional health researchers and clinicians to address issues such as quality of life or wellbeing in old age.

All in all, we are proud to see the area is getting more attention for the benefit of the elderly, the healthcare system, and society.

Ane Hendriksen
Executive Director

This article will appear in issue 5 of Health Europa Quarterly, which will be published in May.

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