Institute for Ageing

Tom Kirkwood

Interview: Tom Kirkwood

Tom Kirkwood is Associate Dean for Ageing.

Scientists at Newcastle University are trying to unravel the biological reasons why people age and the answers could be found deep within our cells.

The human body is not genetically programmed for ageing, says Professor Tom Kirkwood, it is designed for survival.

Tom Kirkwood - interview page

Working at the frontiers of science

So medical researchers at the University’s Institute for Ageing and Health (IAH) are working at the frontiers of science to investigate the highly complex molecular mechanisms in our cells. This is called systems biology and they hope to discover where faults and malfunctioning are occurring that eventually lead to ageing.

"The ageing process is driven by the gradual lifelong accumulation of faults in the cells and tissues of our body," said Professor Kirkwood, the University's Associate Dean for Ageing.

"That helps us to understand the relationship between ageing and age related diseases. For many of these it’s an accumulation of molecular and cell damage that underpins the diseases.

"It also helps us to understand why things like healthy nutrition and exercise can be beneficial for health in old age, because they are all about enhancing the body’s capacity to maintain and repair itself," added Professor Kirkwood.

He came to Newcastle as Professor of Medicine from Manchester University in 1999, with a remit to develop the basic science of ageing, or biogerontology. He was Director of the IAH from 2004 until 2011.

Awarded the CBE

Professor Kirkwood has written two landmark books: "Time of Our Lives: The Science of Human Ageing" (1999) and "The End of Age: Why Everything About Ageing Is Changing" (2001). In 2009 he was awarded the CBE.

Alongside his scientific research at the IAH, a flagship project led by Professor Kirkwood has been the Newcastle 85+ Study, launched in 2006. This has been gathering as much information as possible about the fastest growing sector of the population; those aged 85 and over.

It recruited a large number of people in Newcastle and North Tyneside who had been born by 1921 and followed their fortunes for five years.

"The 85+ Study exceeded our hopes in terms of recruitment," said Professor Kirkwood. "It has accumulated an absolute mass of information and lots of research results are emerging from it."

Special advisor to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

In 2004 Professor Kirkwood had been appointed special advisor to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, which held an inquiry into ageing.

"In 2005 it produced a hard-hitting report pointing to major deficiencies in the way the UK co-ordinated its activities in ageing. It also pointed very strongly to the surprising lack of engagement from business in the ageing agenda," he said.

This prompted one of the committee, Lord Grayson, a successful businessman, to comment to Professor Kirkwood: "I don’t understand why business just doesn't get it."

There are enormous opportunities for businesses to provide products and services aimed at older people. Newcastle University was early in the field in this respect with the creation of Changing Age for Business.

In 2007 Professor Kirkwood led the "Mental Capital Through Life" study that formed an important element of the Government’s 2008 Foresight Report "Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the Most of Ourselves in the 21st Century". This highlighted the need to harness the knowledge, skills, lifelong experience and wisdom of older people.

"There are messages in that for politicians, who have to see how resources are spent, and for everyone else," he explained.

Ageing is our biggest challenge

"Ageing is the biggest challenge as we progress further into the 21st century. It’s a challenge that contains within it a threat; that if we don’t take action quickly enough, in the right kind of way, then what is unquestionably humanity’s greatest success – doubling life expectancy in the last 200 years – could become a real problem.

"There are days when I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what remains to be done. But there are times when I feel really excited by the outstanding contributions that are being made by a growing team of people here in Newcastle."

Contact Tom Kirkwood about his research.