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BACKGROUND: There is no criterion reference for assessing healthy ageing and this creates difficulties when conducting and comparing research on ageing across studies. A cardinal feature of ageing is loss of function which translates into wide-ranging consequences for the individual and for family, carers and society. We undertook comprehensive reviews of the literature searching for biomarkers of ageing on five ageing-related domains including physical capability and cognitive, physiological and musculoskeletal, endocrine and immune functions. Where available, we used existing systematic reviews, meta-analyses and other authoritative reports such as the recently launched NIH Toolbox for assessment of neurological and behavioural function, which includes test batteries for cognitive and motor function (the latter described here as physical capability). We invited international experts to comment on our draft recommendations. In addition, we hosted an experts workshop in Newcastle, UK, on 22-23 October 2012, aiming to help capture the state-of-the-art in this complex area and to provide an opportunity for the wider ageing research community to critique the proposed panel of biomarkers.
DISCUSSION: Here we have identified important biomarkers of healthy ageing classified as subdomains of the main areas proposed. Cardiovascular and lung function, glucose metabolism and musculoskeletal function are key subdomains of physiological function. Strength, locomotion, balance and dexterity are key physical capability subdomains. Memory, processing speed and executive function emerged as key subdomains of cognitive function. Markers of the HPA-axis, sex hormones and growth hormones were important biomarkers of endocrine function. Finally, inflammatory factors were identified as important biomarkers of immune function. We present recommendations for a panel of biomarkers that address these major areas of function which decline during ageing. This biomarker panel may have utility in epidemiological studies of human ageing, in health surveys of older people and as outcomes in intervention studies that aim to promote healthy ageing. Further, the inclusion of the same common panel of measures of healthy ageing in diverse study designs and populations may enhance the value of those studies by allowing the harmonisation of surrogate endpoints or outcome measures, thus facilitating less equivocal comparisons between studies and the pooling of data across studies.