John Mathers is Professor of Human Nutrition and Scientific Director for the Institute for Ageing and Health.
The food we eat could be an important factor in how well or badly we age, and a good balanced diet could help to repair damage to parts of our bodies caused by complex diseases.
What is known as the Mediterranean eating pattern is associated with good ageing, says Professor of Human Nutrition John Mathers.
"An eating pattern which has plenty of fruit and vegetables, not too much meat, some fish, not too much fat and modest alcohol consumption, is associated with people living longer and having less heart disease, less cancers, less risk of Alzheimer's Disease."
Research by his team at Newcastle University's Institute for Ageing and Health, of which he is the Scientific Director, is trying to understand how nutrition influences the accumulation of damage to cells as we age.
"We all collect damage to the DNA in our cells, but we have repair mechanisms," explained Professor Mathers. "But it seems that gradually as we get older those repair mechanisms don’t seem to keep up as well as they might do. Our DNA becomes damaged and we therefore don’t make the proteins we need to do various jobs in the cell."
Age related diseases seem to have common mechanisms, so a key to understanding how nutrition factors affect those processes may lie in the relatively new science of epigenetics. This studies how chemical additions are made to DNA, affecting the way it functions.
Another vital part of Professor Mathers' work involves trying to find interventions to limit the effect of cellular damage, to enable people to live longer, healthier lives. "Interventions that people will find enjoyable, which won’t be a burden to them and that they actually feel good about doing," he points out.
The Livewell programme
Influencing people’s lifestyles is the focus of the Livewell programme that he leads in Newcastle. This is funded by the Medical Research Council, as part of the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Initiative.
Livewell brings together a multi-disciplinary team from across the University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences. It includes other nutritionists, exercise and movement specialists, psychologists and behavioural scientists. Smart technologies for such things as monitoring and delivery systems are also being devised by computer scientists.
The cross-cutting group is focussing on three components of lifestyle: diet, physical activity and what they are calling social connectedness.
"We know that people who feel isolated, feel lonely, aren’t connected into their family, their community and so on, seem to be more likely to have age related problems. So we would like to address that side of it as well as the more obvious things like taking exercise and diet," said Professor Mathers, who comes from Northern Ireland.
The Livewell programme exemplifies the University’s belief in building up of a critical mass of researchers with multi-disciplinary skills and providing them with facilities to match. This approach has put it at the international forefront of addressing the challenge of ageing in all its forms.
"The process of ageing is so complex; it’s not the domain of any one science. So you need people approaching it from a number of different perspectives if we are to make progress," said Professor Mathers.
"I think that is one of the reasons why Newcastle is doing well, because we have the critical mass across the university.
The aim, he adds, is to develop treatments and interventions which could benefit millions of people worldwide, as well as creating huge commercial opportunities for businesses.
"Ageing is not necessarily something that leads to misery and ill health. There are lots of positives, things that we can do to give us the best chance of ageing well. And I’m hoping the research we do will be able to guide people in making the kind of choices that work for them and help them age really well."
Contact John Mathers about his research.