With people living longer and longer, EU policy around ageing is no longer just about providing frail care; it's about promoting health and transforming our societies so people can enjoy their senior years to the fullest. Finland contributes to this shared challenge with deep and reliable gerontology research data.
For the past few hundred years, average life expectancy in high-income countries has been improving by more than three months each year. Initially driven by reductions in infant mortality rates, today the trend is due to people simply living for much longer than they used to. In fact, people of 85 years or more now make up the world's fastest-growing age group.
In a bid to tackle what this massive demographic change means for society, the EU runs a Europe-wide project called More Years Better Lives (MYBL). One of the EU's Joint Programming Initiatives, MYBL is a way for member states to pool R&D resources towards a cause that affects every citizen in the union.
In Finland, the goals of the MYBL project are well aligned with the work of the Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Research on Ageing and Care funded by the Academy of Finland. Founded in 2018, the CoE brings together researchers in social policy, sociology and gerontology from three different Finnish universities, and also helps to train early-career researchers working in the field of ageing.
Tampere University Professor of Gerontology, Marja Jylhä, has represented Finland on MYBL's Scientific Advisory Board for more than 10 years. She also plays a leading role in the Centre of Excellence. Jylhä has been working with gerontology research since 1979, serving in multiple leadership positions at both the national and EU level.
"The common challenge across Europe is how to promote health and guarantee older people play a functioning role in our societies," says Jylhä. "It's not just about ensuring people live for longer, it's about making sure they can be active and contribute."
"This means finding ways for societies to organize themselves so that older people have an active role and can take advantage of their longer lives. Part of this is simply adjusting our mind-sets away from the idea of 'the burden of ageing'."
Jylhä points out that people tend to think of ageing in very general terms, but that the needs of someone in their 60s and 70s is not healthcare – it's mainly about fighting against ageism and having the tools to do so. When people reach their 80s and 90s, the themes of health and societal care become more relevant.
Since 1995, Jylhä has been interviewing Finns of more than 90 years old, studying how the lives of people in this age group are changing over time. She's interested to understand more about their health and quality of life, and has gathered extensive and reliable data over the years.
"Finland is a very organized country, with common trust between people and trust in the government. This provides a solid base for conducting research," says Jylhä. "We also have very accurate population registers and care registers, so we can always reach our citizens and we know if they're in a hospital or care home. What this means is that Finland can contribute quality data to European gerontology studies."
"Another good thing in Finland is that the borders between different academic disciplines are not very tight," she says. "Scientists, demographers, and other researchers speak to one another, so Finland provides good grounds for interdisciplinary work."
"This is important, because gerontology is a very broad field, covering everything from the biology of ageing to its societal consequences. Ageing impacts many different sectors of our society, including education, the economy and healthcare. It really is something that affects us all in multiple different ways."
On 30 October 2019, the 17 member countries in the More Years Better Lives initiative will come together in Helsinki for a workshop to discuss good examples of policy integration around ageing at the national, regional and local levels. The workshop is an official side event of Finland's Presidency of the Council of the European Union until 31 December 2019.