Research that gets under your skin. That is the slogan at COREMED, the centre for regenerative medicine. Wound healing is one of Lars-Peter Kamolz’s fields of research. The institute director at COREMED and surgeon at the Medical University of Graz works intensively on all aspects of ageing and also on management and networking. The networker cooperates with other institutes at JOANNEUM RESEARCH and also with external facilities to tackle projects and find solutions.
Alongside wound healing and regenerative medicine, your research work involves sustainable ageing. Can you explain this to us?
Sustainable ageing is a creative expression that has been carefully crafted. In my view, it is healthy ageing in a sustainable context, in a sustainable society. Anti-ageing, a phrase coined by marketing, used to be the “in” thing. However, in reality, we are not against ageing. The idea is that people age healthily so that they can live at home for as long as possible.
So, what exactly is ageing?
Ageing is a progressive and irreversible biological process that gradually leads to the loss of normal organ function and ends with death. There are a wide range of theories answering the question as to why organisms age at all, but currently there is no scientifically accepted and comprehensive answer. The inflamm-ageing model is also of interest for ageing, which releases chronic inflammatory processes by ageing in the body – not only in the skin, but also in organs.
What challenges do you see for the healthcare system to enable sustainable ageing?
In the long term, not only will diagnostics and treatment be important, but also the aftercare: How patients are cared for in their context once they leave the hospital. It is also necessary to apply it earlier to prevent illness. This makes the scope of sustainable and healthy ageing even larger. People can only age well if everything else around them works well. Families used to live together in large units and the younger ones cared for the older generation. However nowadays, the younger generation often move to urban areas and the older generation remain in rural areas and are often alone.
Life expectancy is increasing, for women it is 83.9 years and for men 79.1 years. What about quality of life at the same time?
On average, people are getting older. The problem is that the last 10 to 15 years are spent in average to poor health. On the one hand, the quality of life is relatively low, on the other, age-related illnesses place the most burden on society. The goal is not that people can get much older. It is mainly that the period of average and poor health is shortened.
How can we shape our own lives to ensure that grow old healthily?
We differentiate between primary and secondary ageing: A baby that is born today can get to be 120 years old. Secondary ageing consists of what we do to not achieve that age such as little exercise and too much food. A positive contribution to healthy ageing is a healthy lifestyle with exercise, dieting and red wine – enjoyed with moderation. There are indications that certain medication (rapalogs) can prolong life and healthy nutrition with spermidines that promote the cellular cleansing process (autophagy). Sustainable ageing goes a step further and analyses what influence the environment and the context have on ageing. Another initiative speaks of one health that considers the health of humans, animals, and plants to be inseparably connected to each other. Healthy ageing is only possible in a sustainable context in a sustainable society.
What influence do cities have on sustainable ageing?
According to forecasts published by the United Nations, almost 70% of the world’s population will live in urban spaces by 2050. There is a huge difference between our cities and mega-metropolises. Our cities are slowly changing from industrial cities to service cities and knowledge societies. We can plan cities much better than mega-metropolises that have to deal with annual growth rates of 2 million inhabitants.
Graz is obviously not growing as fast as cities in South America or Asia. We have the advantage that we can try out new city concepts such as healthy ageing in sustainable contexts. The relevant questions here concern local recreation, green spaces, and more or fewer city streets. During hot spells, where the temperature at night does not fall as easily as it does in rural areas, there are concepts to combat this with vertical greening and the like.
How can people be motivated to avoid unhealthy behaviour?
I think the most important thing is that we start by showing how important healthy nutrition and exercise is as early as possible in Kindergarten or at school with simple and easy-to-understand messages. The upcoming youth are more aware in certain areas. Fast food is still popular, but there are many who follow vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. There is much to do regarding the promotion of health competence and literacy so that people can make conscious decisions about their health. There is a widening social gap.
The ageing population is a challenge. How can the provision of medicine cover the higher demand caused by age-related illnesses?
I think it will work out fine because we are rethinking the system. One goal is to strengthen health competence as early as possible so that people deal with their health themselves. The amount of medical knowledge is currently doubling every two months and alongside people, we also need digital solutions that support us. Digital systems can filter out which support measures we need for diagnosis and treatment quickly and efficiently. During Corona, we learned that people are treated by people and not by beds and equipment. We do not deal with chronic and poorly healing wounds for nothing. Looking at how the age numbers are developing; we can see that the number of those who suffer from them will increase.
I read in an interview a few years ago that gratitude is important for you. Is this still the case?
Absolutely. It is very important to be grateful and content with what we have. Even seeing how good we have it when just a few kilometres away the health system does not function or there is war. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t always strive for improvement but be aware of what went well. I once received the tip to think of what went well and what was particularly good during the day before going to bed and not what didn’t work out. It is a different way of falling asleep than devoting yourself to despair.
What else can we do to keep healthy and to remain mentally agile?
Healthy nutrition and exercise are important factors. Exercise has a positive influence on every organ, even on the brain. Sports such as dancing are extremely good, even as a preventative measure against dementia. An important factor is to keep your mind active up to old age since the brain is just like a muscle and needs to be trained: Repeatedly dealing with new and completely different things – it doesn’t have to be dancing.
We don’t always have everything under our own control …
Of course, every one of us can have bad luck or have an accident. Then it is difficult if you suffer from something that you cannot influence. However, with ageing, we do have the possibility to make great strides in one direction or another with exercise and nutrition. I would rather shape the future than suffer it. I think it is really important to listen to yourself and recognize warning signals. But not to be a hypochondriac. A human is a unit consisting of body, mind, and spirit. It is important to be content and have the desire for “more”, but this doesn’t have to be money.
What is your vision for a sustainable and healthy society in the future?
To close ranks a certain degree so that we can all grow old together. I hope that certain values in our society gain more traction and egotism is reduced. Values such as friendliness, contentment, and sharing certain things with other people. We need to be more aware of how we talk to each other, meet each other, and live with people and neighbours. How and where will we live with each other in the future? Will the generations after us find a world worth living in, a peaceful coexistence? Peace, democracy, and freedom of speech? When I was a child, I used to say that when I was older, I wanted to be a good middle-class citizen.
Thank you for the interview!
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