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The power of the elderly

A forecast published by Nature at the beginning of last year indicates that the proportion of people over the age of 60 in the world’s population, which corresponded to 10% in 2000, will increase to 22% in 2050. The elderly will comprise nearly one-fourth of the world’s population, while in Brazil this rate will change even more drastically: Brazilians over the age of 60 currently comprise 9% of the population, while in 2050 they will comprise 29%, which corresponds to nearly one-third of the total population, according to data of the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute/IBGE. This situation had never been imagined a mere 100 years ago, when average life expectancy in the United States was barely more than 50 years, and in Brazil was a mere 30 years, as stated in Brasil e Argentina: um ensaio de história comparada (1850-2002), a book written by Boris Fausto and Fernando J. Devoto in 2004 and published by Editora 34 (the source of this book is a paper written by Rosemary Thorp in 1998: Progresso, pobreza e exclusão: uma história econômica da América Latina no século XX). Argentina, in this respect, was way ahead of Brazil – life expectancy in Argentina in those times corresponded to a little over the age of 40.

This aging of the population all over the world, coupled with the pertinent concern related to the quality of life of elderly people, has motivated the development of a trans-disciplinary field of research which investigates, from multiple starting points, how the brain ages. In other words, the issue is what happens to the brain of healthy senior citizens as they get older and older – and which strategies should be followed to keep it healthy for its entire life. The research work being conducted in this respect, including in Brazil, should help define more accurately, in the forthcoming years, the frontier that separates the typical changes of normal aging from the changes that herald the onset of dramatic neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Ricardo Zorzetto, science editor, pored over half a dozen of the Brazilian research studies and over material from various international research studies to write the cover story of this issue of Pesquisa FAPESP. While reading the papers, he thought about films such as the beautiful, melancholic feature film, Chuvas de verão, directed by Cacá Diegues, and starring the great actor Jofre Soares in the role of the old man who retires and immediately puts on a pair of pajamas to stand in front of his doorstep, and how such an image would increasingly sound like a hymn from a totally old-fashioned way of life. In contrast, films that celebrate such later-life feats as the rediscovery of middle-aged love, such as Something’s gotta give or Last chance, Harvey, tend to multiply with increasingly older main characters. After all, a healthy old age as an uncontested victory of life – and love, without any intention of sounding coy, is the vigorous reaffirmation of yes to life.

Another must read in this issue is the article on the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus church, which opens the section on the humanities. Based on recent studies fueled by the impressive growth of neo-Pentecostalism, editor Carlos Haag mentions the shady relationship that exists between neo-Pentecostal churches and the devil (less focused on the demons of Christian tradition and more closely linked to “exu”, a deity of the Afro-Brazilian religions) and refers to some nuances from the “theology of prosperity” that is the basic creed of the Igreja Universal. According to an argument voiced by anthropologist Paula Montero, one of the people interviewed by Haag, “if the ‘theology of liberation’ produced the category of the poor  as a political actor in the public arena,  the ‘theology of the prosperity’ of the Igreja Universal produces the poor person as an economic actor and makes him accountable for  his own salvation.”

Finally, I would like to highlight the ping-pong interview with mathematician Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. The interview was conducted by Fabrício Marques, the scientific policy and technology editor. An internationally renowned expert on dynamical systems, Palis talks in an enthusiastic and instigating manner about the maturing of the field of research in Brazil.