Age concern

It is often said that smoking is the single biggest cause of statistics. As fewer of us puff away, however, it may be that the number crunchers need a new subject on which to practice their dark arts and produce a non-stop barrage of graphs, forecasts and projections, none of which will quite agree with the others.

It is neatly ironic that one of the best candidates for smoking’s statistical crown is not concerned with dropping dead but rather with staying alive, and more specifically with getting old.

The ageing population is one of the hottest topics around, and true to form the statisticians are firing off a volley of forecasts that show how rising life expectancy and a falling birth rate will combine to create an unprecedented demographic shift towards the grey end of the spectrum.

The precise extent of this shift might get the forecasters arguing, but just as with smoking the evidence pretty much all points in the same direction. There are going to be a lot more very old people around by the middle of this century and taking care of them (or should that be us) will be a major national challenge.

The extent of the challenge emerged at an excellent Horizon seminar held at Cambridge University this week which brought together experts from the fields of medicine, policy and engineering to discuss the issue.

Among some fascinating insights such as the advance in research into treating Parkinson’s disease, one of the overwhelming themes to emerge was the key role engineers, technologists and the companies they work for will play in preparing for the grey boom.

In an era when many people are frailer, less dexterous and harder of sight and hearing, the design and functionality of products will either make lives easier or make them a misery.

Prof John Clarkson of Cambridge’s Engineering Design Centre provided some useful pointers to the challenges ahead, and has gone as far as developing simulator kits that mimic impairments such as stiffness of joints, lack of mobility and reduced eyesight in a bid to give manufacturers an insight into the special requirements of those who will increasingly be their key customers.

Clarkson calls this process inclusive design, but for many product developers it is likely to become a necessity rather than a luxury.

The problem is, despite the work of people like Clarkson this issue still seems to be at the very edge of the radar of most engineering and manufacturing operations.

The timeframe is just too long and the short-term pressures too great to worry about the ‘grey effect’.

That is a pity, because the consequences of not considering it could be grim for many. What’s more, it would be a missed opportunity. Is it too bold to suggest that developers of technologies that meet the needs of the 60 plus age group will be the ones holding the golden goose of the next 20 years?

Andrew Lee, editor