How to Cope with Growing Ageing Population? New Israeli-German Center Looks for Answers

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am Hashem. Leviticus 19;32, The Israel Bible

Governments around the world are panicking over how to cope with their growing ageing populations – how to provide good medical care for them and, just as important, how to prevent diseases related to ageing. 

Now, the German government has decided to set and finance up a new, interdisciplinary Minerva Center at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv) that will be the first of its kind in the world to focus on the biological mechanisms of aging and translating this knowledge into extending human health at old age and prevent aging-related diseases.

At present, 23 Minerva Centers are being funded at six universities and the Weizmann Institute in Israel. The Minerva Centers, which perform research in various fields, are dedicated to promoting cooperation between German and Israeli scientists through joint research projects, short-term research exchanges, symposia and workshops.

The incentive for establishing research centers in Israel goes back to 1975, when the German government decided to set up new cooperative methods to deepen scientific contacts between the two countries. The goal was to concentrate on innovative research topics of mutual interest to both German and Israeli scientists. By supporting these small excellent centers, Minerva aims at meeting the highest scientific standards. The center on ageing will be the 24th of the Minerva Centers, which have focused so far in the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

Older Minerva Centers are financed by endowment funds allocated to the research institutions in Israel, which are invested at the maximum rate of interest. The investment yields are matched by equal payments from the Israeli host-university; the total sum is the annual budget for the Minerva Center. Since 2010, Minerva has been collecting proposals for new Minerva Centers. Advisory boards, which make suggestions about scientific program and the center’s budget, are chaired by a German member and consist of at least three scientists. 

The Minerva Foundation established the Minerva Center Committee that is comprised of internationally recognized scientists and researchers from various fields. It is responsible for selecting and assessing applications and for appointing independent scientific committees for the evaluation of the Minerva Centers. 

Prof. Haim Cohen of the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University and Prof. Björn Schumacher, director of the Institute for Genome Stability in Aging and Disease and principal investigator at the Cluster of Excellence – one of the largest centers for aging research in Europe – will head the Minerva Center, which will be comprised of leading Israeli and German researchers in the field.

In Israel, life expectancy is among the highest in OECD countries, with close to one million people over the age of 65 living here. Men live an average of 81 years, and women an average of 85 years. Longer lives are a growing trend; it is estimated that in the coming years these averages will continue to rise.

Experts predict that by the mid-21st century, the life expectancy of women in Israel will average above 90 years, and that in less than two decades, the number of people in Israel above the age of 75 will double. But more than half of the elderly population suffers from multiple chronic diseases such as dementia, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and frailty. With the growing number of elderly citizens, an increasing proportion of the Israeli society will suffer from the chronic diseases of aging

The Israeli and German researchers aim to understand the underlying mechanisms of aging, and how health can be maintained and aging-associated diseases effectively be prevented.

“Using a multisystem approach, we are trying to understand the mechanisms that determine life expectancy in order to extend healthy life expectancy – in other words postponing or preventing the onset of age-related diseases, thus alleviating health difficulties caused by aging,” said Cohen. “In this way, we can enable an experienced and mature population to realize its potential and enable it to become more productive towards itself and society. While it is important to understand what will lead to life extension, it is just as important to determine what affects quality of life,” he added. 

“The collaborative center between the Cluster of Excellence in Cologne and our partners at Bar-Ilan University in Israel opens new perspectives for investigating the mechanisms of healthy aging,” said Schumacher. “Aging-related diseases are of grave importance to society and we are very enthusiastic about generating synergies between scientists in Germany and Israel to advance knowledge on the underlying biology of aging.”

In addition to conducting research. the Israeli and German partners in the Minerva Center will hold conferences and seminars open to the public and engage in scientific and philosophical questions of longevity.