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Uncovering the secrets of successful ageing - TILDA explores decade of research to understand a generation

From heart conditions to caring for grandchildren and from undiagnosed diabetes to the power of positive thought, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) has spent a decade understanding Ireland’s older generation. Trinity College Dublin will celebrate that milestone with 600 of the 8500 participants at a special event today, at which researchers and participants will consider the critical impact this research continues to have on the lives of older people.

Such is the breadth and depth of the subjects TILDA’s research covers that policy makers, NGOs and others have used the findings as the evidence base for 52 policy and strategy documents covering: transport; health; jobs; pensions; carers; residential and home care; health and road safety public awareness campaigns; capacity planning for services; medical care and practice; IT; health insurance; dementia prevention; volunteering; taxation and the economy.

The TILDA research team and principal investigator, Professor of Medical Gerontology at Trinity, Rose Anne Kenny, will give examples of how this research is changing policy and practice for older adults.

For example:

  • When TILDA revealed two thirds of older people have high blood pressure – often unknown to the individual despite the risk it poses to their heart and brain health – TILDA, with funding from the HRB, rolled out a nationwide programme to community health nurses to encourage more frequent blood pressure monitoring.
  • TILDA measurements on walking speeds revealed that one in three older adults cannot cross the street in the time allotted at signalised crossings. TILDA researchers are now working with local authorities to assess signal timing settings and are providing evidence for public safety campaigns with the Road Safety Authority.
  • Atrial fibrillation (Afib) is a common cause of stroke, heart failure and dementia. TILDA found that the prevalence of Afib was 2.3% in the population, rising to 20% in men aged over 80 years. Of those with an arrhythmia, one third were unaware of the arrhythmia and one third were incorrectly treated. The Irish Heart Foundation translated these findings into a national awareness campaign and now, the National Screening Programme Guidelines use this TILDA data.

Key facts about TILDA’s first ten years:

  • In addition to the original funding from the Department of Health, Atlantic Philanthropies and Irish Life of over €28 million, since 2006, TILDA has also raised additional grant funding for research projects of €4.6 million;
  • TILDA has 34 staff including 14 post-doctoral researchers and 8 students and has trained 28 PhDs and post-doctoral fellows, 140 field workers and 25 research nurses;
  • The TILDA team have authored 108 papers in peer reviewed publications as well as 23 reports, topic reports and research briefs;
  • More than 1100 people have access to anonymised TILDA data for their own research projects, both nationally and internationally;
  • TILDA is engaged in more than 45 national research collaborations and more than 25 international collaborations;
  • TILDA has reached over 10,000 social media learners through their free online course, Strategies for Successful Ageing, which will run again for Positive Ageing Week, this September 26th 2016;
  • The TILDA study is harmonised to 13 other international longitudinal studies on ageing which allows cross country comparisons of key indicators of health, wealth and happiness.

Professor Kenny said: “One of the greatest demographic and social transformations facing Ireland is the ageing of its population, increased life expectancy and a reduction in fertility rates. Globally this will see proportions of people 60 and over increase from 11.7% today up 21% by 2050 equating to 2 billion people worldwide. Whereas global ageing carries many challenges, it also presents opportunities. By providing high quality data, we can drive informed decision making at all levels and propel ageing research in Ireland into a position of global leadership.”

Professor Kenny continued: “The TILDA team wish to pay tribute to TILDA participants who have helped us to unmask the important and often silent contribution that older adults make to Irish society. The participants have contributed to a rich legacy which will ensure a better quality of life for future generations by helping us to understand the process of ageing. This understanding is coupled with important information to help governments to make efficient policy decisions to optimise health and economic success as populations age.”

Established in 2006, TILDA was designed to provide an evidence base for understanding ageing in Ireland and beyond. 8500 participants are interviewed at home every two years and take part in an in-depth health assessment every four years. Researchers gather detailed information about their health, wealth and social structures and are able to track changes in people’s physical and emotional wellbeing over time. The research is helping them pinpoint the lifestyle choices, behaviours and strategies that prove to be the most successful for a positive ageing experience.

The study was initially funded by a philanthropic gift from Irish Life and from Atlantic Philanthropies in addition to funding from the Department of Health.