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The ageing of populations and individuals continues to be as vital, yet to some extent as neglected, a topic in pharmacology and therapeutics as was first realised about 30 years ago. In parallel with the realisation of the predicted demographic shifts in both the developed and developing world, there have since been major developments in the basic biological concepts of ageing, in the physiology of ageing, in the study of pathogenetic mechanisms underlying a variety of age-associated disorders and syndromes, and in the evidence base for therapeutic intervention in elderly patient populations. These all present new challenges both in the practical delivery of effective medical care and in clinical and biological research. The scale of prescribing for an ageing population has continued to rise as anticipated. Whether there has now been any improvement in the quality or rationality of prescribing, or in the previously demonstrated unacceptable level of susceptibility to adverse drug reactions in the (now expanded) older patient population is largely unknown. We urgently need to find out using up-to-date research methods. National and international guidelines for drug development and regulation have more recently been followed by broader policy inititiatives on prescribing for older people, but the impact of these on standards of medication use and on clinical outcome remains to be seen. A new series in this journal on the clinical pharmacology of ageing is timely. The required focus and framework for research have often tended in the past to emerge as afterthoughts behind the merely disease specific, and it is to be hoped that a sequential review of some of the key topics may help to re-ignite a more sound and less short-sighted agenda than previously.