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Turning a Super-Aged Society into one of Healthy Longevity through the Fusion of Sport Sciences, Robot Engineering and Life Sciences

Institute of Advanced Active Aging Research

Japan has the world’s fastest aging society, with people aged 65 and over now making up more than 24% of the population, and it is about to become the world’s first super-aged society. The phenomenon of aging is inevitable, as the societies of not only developed countries, but also developing countries and emerging nations, mature. The culture of intergenerational assistance where the people of younger generations support the elderly is crumbling, and a society in which the elderly can lead more independent and active lives needs to be established.

A super-aged society, above all else, must be based on healthy longevity. If the elderly can live long, healthy, and fulfilling lives while retaining their mobility, they not only ease the burden on society but also boost their own quality of life, making it more exhilarating and fulfilling. Empowering the elderly with their wealth of social experience, skills and knowledge will also bolster society. These healthy elderly people have recently been called “active seniors,” and an entire market targeting them is emerging, offering a range of products and services including fashion, travel, and education.

However, this is easier said than done. Being a super-aged society and one of healthy longevity simultaneously is no simple feat. Active seniors used to consist mainly of people in their 50s and 60s, but with the advance of aging, it is now necessary to include those in their 70s and 80s. We cannot avoid the waning of our physical functions with aging. We must gather knowledge in a variety of fields to push (or even overcome) these limits.

To address this difficult issue, the Institute of Advanced Active Aging Research, a research center that aims to tackle this challenge through Waseda-style interdisciplinary research, was established in June 2013 as part of the Organization for University Research Initiatives. I spoke with the institute’s director, Professor Mitsuru Higuchi, of the Faculty of Sport Sciences.

Mitsuru Higuchi, Director of the Institute of Advanced Active Aging Research, and Professor of the Faculty of Sport Sciences

Paradigm Shifts in a Super-Aged Society

The 9th International Sport Sciences Symposium on "Active Life,” an international symposium organized under the program, Sport Sciences for the Promotion of Active Life (November 30 and December 1, 2013)

The Institute of Advanced Active Aging Research was established to spearhead “Paradigm shifts in a super-aged society,” a new field of research which opened up in 2013, as one of the objectives of the University Research Initiatives at Waseda University. The unprecedented super-aged society will require a revolutionary change in our view of the world, and the way we think and behave. But above all, this research and development institute aims to achieve a paradigm shift toward active aging through better health and exercise.

As a predecessor of this institute, the Faculty of Sport Sciences has been running Sport Sciences for the Promotion of Active Life (2009-2013), selected as one of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology's (MEXT’s) Global COE Programs. However, this research focused on not only the elderly, but people of all age groups, from children to adults and the elderly. The research carried out at the institute will specifically target the elderly (② and ③ of Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Physical functions decline with age, and the challenge for a super-aged society is to boost the number of elderly people who remain active

Professor Higuchi: This initiative of the Faculty of Sport Sciences garnered the highest appraisal out of all the Global COE Programs in interdisciplinary, combined fields. Based on the findings of this initiative, we decided to narrow our target this time to elderly people. The aim of this high-priority research is to establish cutting-edge research on active aging with people as research subjects, through the fusion of three academic fields symbolic of Waseda; sport sciences, robot engineering, and life sciences. We, of the Faculty of Sport Sciences, are supervising the overall project because of our experience and accumulated knowhow in research targeting people.

As shown in Fig. 2, the institute consists of the three groups in Sport Sciences (Group S), Robot Engineering (Group R), and Life Sciences (Group T, taken from the first letter of TWIns / Center for Advanced Biomedical Sciences). Groups R and T have so far engaged in research into health and medical RT (robot technology) for the super-aged society through MEXT’s 21st Century COE Program, Innovative Research on Symbiosis Technologies for Human and Robots in the Elderly Dominated Society (2003-2008), the Super COE Program (2004-2009) run by the Consolidated Research Institute for Advanced Science and Medical Care (ASMeW), and the Global COE Program (2008-2013) run by Global Robot Academia, as well as the Funding Program for Next Generation World-Leading Research (NEXT Program) that has adopted the research projects of Associate Professor Hiroyasu Iwata (2011-2014).

Fig. 2: The Institute of Advanced Active Aging Research fuses three fields of research

The ultimate goal is to fuse the three fields of Groups S, R, and T; but the institute plans to start by basing its research on combinations of these fields in pairs. For example, the fusion of sport sciences and robot engineering may lead to the development of new training equipment, which they would evaluate for effectiveness in boosting the health of elderly people. Or, sensors developed through life sciences may be used to carry out research into its applicability to humans in the field of sport sciences.

“Self-medication for active seniors” is the objective of the institute’s research centered on robot engineering, and they will implement initiatives including everything from the establishment of fundamental theories to the development of assistive devices (Fig. 3). In its research centered on life sciences, the institute will develop functional fluorescent probes and nanosheets using conductive polymers, in collaboration with robot engineering, to build systems that monitor biological information. In research into these functional nanosheets (Fig. 4), they will conduct in vitro and in vivo evaluation tests in the field of life sciences, and carry out experimental studies on people in collaboration with sport sciences. Furthermore, the institute has carried out basic and applied research in time-based health science, lifestyle diseases, and cancer prevention, known as chrono-nutrition in the field of life sciences; and will carry out further experimental studies of the health effects on the elderly, in collaboration with sport sciences.

Fig. 3: Applying knowhow in robot engineering to health equipment and assistive devices for the proactive fostering of active seniors

Fig. 4: Development of a minimally invasive biological information monitoring system using nanosheets that can be attached to the skin

Disseminating the unique research findings from Waseda University throughout the world

The Waseda’s Health Study is a sport sciences-led project that is unique among the initiatives of the Institute of Advanced Active Aging Research. Targeting Waseda University graduates (Waseda University Alumni Association), it will cross-sectionally verify the impact of lifestyles on the health and physical strength of middle-aged to elderly men and women, linking lifestyles to genetic polymorphism, experience in sports in early life and adulthood, current health risks, and physical fitness indicators (cardiorespiratory fitness, muscle strength, etc.). A well-known example is the Harvard Alumni Health Study, an extensive follow-up survey that has been tracking Harvard University graduates since the 1960s, and Waseda University too is attempting to launch a similar initiative.

Measuring maximal oxygen uptake (cardiorespiratory fitness) using a rowing machine (Tokorozawa Campus)

Professor Higuchi: We plan to conduct long-term, extensive studies of correlations between various lifestyles and healthy longevity; for example, to see if people who played sports at university live longer and healthier lives, or to study the difference between people who exercised and those who did not during their prime of life, and the relevance of diet, among other things. Of course our aim is not simply to have alumni cooperate with our study, but we also aim to contribute to their healthy longevity. Ideally, we will be able to present the findings of our study during Waseda University’s 150th anniversary in 2032.

The institute has already negotiated with the Waseda University Alumni Association, and the study is set for an official launch in March 2014. They plan to make an extensive online appeal for alumni participation and to carry out an initial questionnaire survey on health targeting 20,000 people. It will then recruit the help of 5,000 of those initially surveyed to cooperate in experiments involving wearing pedometers; and there are also plans to have some of these people take part in exercise tests, measurements, and evaluations at a research center. Furthermore, the institute has already forged cooperative ties with senior citizens living around the Tokorozawa Campus where the Faculty of Sport Sciences is based, through their research activities to date.

Professor Higuchi: I don’t think there are any other research institutes in the world implementing cross-disciplinary initiatives in active aging in this way. What’s more, it is rare for a university with no medical school to have such a research institute that aims to promote better health. My wish is to share the research findings with the entire world; findings that can only be obtained at Waseda University in Japan, a country leading the way in a super-aged society.

Great expectations are held for this long-term, extensive, and cross-sectional cohort study, based on collaboration with alumni, communities, and current students including athletes.

Related links

Institute of Advanced Active Aging Research, Waseda University
Organization for University Research Initiatives, Waseda University
Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University
Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
Center for Advanced Biomedical Sciences / TWIns, Waseda University