University of Zurich: Living Healthily for Longer

2021-2030 has been declared the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing by the World Health Organization. Research into healthy longevity and the development of innovative approaches to aging have been a strategic priority at UZH for several years now. The creation of the new Healthy Longevity Center provides an added boost and a firm footing for research in this increasingly important area.

How can we maintain and foster quality of life in old age? This question has been the focus of intensive research into aging at UZH for many years – for example at the University Research Priority Program Dynamics of Healthy Aging and at the Center of Competence for Gerontology. “Healthy longevity” means maintaining quality of life and functional ability as we age. For the World Health Organization (WHO), this entails enabling people to “be and do what they have reason to value.” In other words, it is a completely new definition of health that is not about disease, but rather about each individual’s ability to act and live in a way that is meaningful for them, throughout their lifespan.

Decade of healthy aging
This new approach to health is at the core of the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing 2021–2030. The aim of the initiative is to inspire the kind of internationally coordinated action needed to foster healthy longevity. “For the decade to be a success, we need research-based innovation and coordinated cooperation between private, public and philanthropic sectors. This is the only way to implement research results on a large scale and to ensure such measures make a long-term difference,” says Mike Martin. The UZH professor of gerontopsychology and gerontology is also coordinator of the global network of WHO Collaborating Centers. He has been instrumental in shaping the new healthy longevity concept and implementing it at UZH.

New research center
In line with the aims of the Decade of Healthy Ageing, UZH last year founded the Healthy Longevity Innovation Cluster. Now, with the support of the Velux Stiftung, the next stage is about to launch: the establishment of the Healthy Longevity Center, which together with the innovation cluster will form a research and innovation ecosystem for healthy longevity.

“The new center’s focus – on providing real-time data on the heterogeneity and complexity of lifelong development – is unique worldwide,” says Martin, who will lead the center together with Harald Gall, Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics. The center’s official opening coincides with the second UZH Healthy Longevity Innovation Days on 30 June and 1 July, with international guests from academia, the private and public sectors, and philanthropy.

Fostering innovation
The healthy longevity cluster and center at UZH have three main areas of priority: forming and maintaining networks in the academic and private sectors, exploiting new technologies and providing a base for innovation. For example, researchers at the new center will use novel technologies that allow tailored intervention options. These take into account a person’s individual characteristics as well as their unique everyday situation. Feedback and suggestions on one’s own behavior can then be made at precisely the moment when they are most likely to have the greatest impact.

Another focal point concerns entrepreneurship. “Through close cooperation between universities and private partners, as well as the application of the latest technologies, we want to enable research findings to be translated as quickly as possible into implementable and innovative measures that support healthy aging,” says Martin.

Improving efficiency of interventions
UZH has continued to break new ground in the area of healthy longevity in recent years. For example, UZH researchers were able to use dynamic system models to identify the factors that could stabilize older people’s capabilities. Individual behavioral “fingerprints” were used for just-in-time interventions, or situations were identified that would offer the greatest possible intervention effectiveness in everyday life. “This approach enables us to pinpoint and exploit situations which demand high functional ability and are susceptible to high intervention sensitivity. For example, situations in which someone is productively engaged in a task, or in which they would benefit from a suggestion or support with a decision,” explains Martin. “This can increase the efficiency of interventions 20-fold.”