It’s thanks to modern medicine, improved healthcare, and public health initiatives that we’re living longer than our ancestors. In fact, worldwide one in six people will be aged 60 or over by 2030.
However, the human body is a very complex system, and it continues to be susceptible to new and evolving diseases that threaten our wellbeing and mortality.
So, who is getting sick? The answer is: the young and the old.
The good news is, research gives us the ability to reframe how we tackle illness, to ensure that people of all ages can get appropriate and timely treatments. Research also shifts our focus to keeping people healthy, not just treating the sick.
Let’s look at some of the health risks and challenges our researchers are working to alleviate.
Professor Justin Beilby is the Deputy Vice Chancellor Research at Torrens University Australia and he’s been a working GP for over 30 years. He says the management of older people’s health in the community is, “often reactive” – and what we need instead is a new model of care that, “encompasses a personalised approach.”
Breaking with the tradition of focussing on a single perspective of ailment, Professor Beilby and his team have been testing a standard of complete care, with multiple healthcare providers involved, to address the issue of frailty in ageing.
This research brings together the existing knowledge of exercise physiologists, pharmacists, nutritionists, GPs, geriatricians and so on, to apply appropriate screening tools that will assess whether a person is considered frail.
Frailty is often defined as physiological decline in older people. In Australia, 20 per cent of older adults fall under the definition of frail, and are at increased risk of poor health, accidents, and disability.
Professor Beilby says being able to effectively assess an individual patient’s level of frailty can give them the tools and confidence to get their life back on track.
“Little subtle changes in exercise or nutrition or stopping medications makes people's lives in their 60s and 70sso much more enjoyable.”
The transformation of one particular patient has lingered in Professor Beilby’s mind as a fond memory.
“The energy that came back to that person when they took control of their lives was very positive.”
“Screening for frailty is about empowerment. It's not just another disease. It's about saying you can do something about this.”
Research of this sort can take a long time to mature, as data is collected, reviewed, and translated back into clinical practice. Professor Beilby says the findings from this research will eventually make an enormous impact.
“It feeds into policy, feeds into education, and you shift the debate over a period of three or four years.”
A new kind of heart care
In Australia, one person dies every 12 minutes from cardiovascular disease (CVD)– that’s the umbrella term used for heart, stroke, and vascular diseases. While medications and interventions have halted patient numbers, one in six Australians still live with CVD.
Professor Craig McLachlan is the Director for the Centre of Healthy Futures and the co-author of a trailblazing case study which detailed the first in-human use of aortic stents in the heart. His latest research focusses on a new type of cardiac device that could transform heart disease treatment.
This research looks at the application of an easy-to-use device that can be implanted in the body to restore the functionality of the aorta, which can get stiff over time. The aorta is the main artery that carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the body.
Professor McLachlan says the device is viewed as having a role in the application of acute intervention.
“If someone's having heart surgery, it may improve coronary blood flow. We also see that there's an application for this device for people that do have early-stage heart failure.”
“We think it can complement existing technologies, including other heart assist devices.”
The application of the device is being tested in a simulated environment. Using MRI and CT scans, the vascular system is reconstructed to replicate human conditions. This allows researchers to refine the device before taking it into patient trials.
Professor McLachlan says this device could be a game-changer, particularly in developing countries.
“It gives more power to the surgeon or the community to uptake new technologies that could benefit patients that only had drug therapy available, or minor types of surgery available, where the surgery lab may not be well equipped.”
“This gives a more equitable solution to developing countries in need of more simple devices to treat heart disease,” explains Professor McLachlan.
Listen to Research That Matters to hear more about the research projects of Professor Beilby and Professor McLachlan in Episode 4: Building Health Solutions.
Research That Matters, is a 9-part podcast series featuring researchers from Torrens University Australia, who are working to solve complex global problems and to propel innovation. Hosted by Clement Paligaru and produced by Written & Recorded.
Find all episodes of Research That Matters at https://www.torrens.edu.au/research/research-that-matters-podcast