FINDING ways to keep healthy in older age is becoming increasingly vital, researchers say.

University of Brighton professor Richard Faragher, who specialises in the study of the ageing process, says the greatest barrier to a healthy later life is no longer the rate of progress.

He says it is the speed with which people can turn a growing knowledge of the biology of ageing into drugs and lifestyle advice.

Prof Faragher spoke out following publication of new research showing how scientists have substantially prolonged the life of mice.

He said whether humans will ever be able to live significantly longer than the current maximum of 125 years was hard to tell.

However he said working out how to eliminate the damaging effects of ageing remains the primary goal.

Prof Faragher said: “If you don’t smoke, then your major risk factor for dying is probably your age.

“That is because we have nearly eliminated mortality in early life, thanks to advances in science and engineering.

“But despite this progress, we still haven’t worked out how to eliminate the damaging effects of ageing itself.

“Now a new study in mice, published in Nature, reveals that stem cells (a type of cell that can develop into many other types) in a specific area of the brain regulate ageing.

“The team even managed to slow down and speed up the ageing process by transplanting or deleting stem cells in the region.

“Ageing poses an important challenge for society. This is because by 2050, there will be as many old people as children on Earth for the first time.

“This change is reflected in unprecedented stress on our health and social care systems.

“Understanding how we can keep ourselves in good health as we age is becoming increasingly important.”

The researchers focused on the mouse hypothalamus at the centre of the brain.

The research team looked at a specialised group of stem cells and monitored what happened to them as the mice aged.

Mice normally live for about two years but researchers found the cells began to disappear by about 11 months and by 22 months they had vanished completely.

The rate at which the stem cells was lost closely correlated with ageing changes in the animals. These included declines in learning, memory and muscle endurance.

Prof Faragher said he hoped the findings could eventually lead to stopping unsuccessful ageing in humans.