Newcastle University scientists could wipe out life expectancy gaps

A pioneering simulation at Newcastle University will focus on health inequalities and could lead to differences in life expectancy being wiped out

Newcastle University
Newcastle University

Stark differences in life expectancy could be wiped out in a decade with the help of a pioneering simulation led by researchers at a North East university.

People living eight miles apart – a matter of minutes on the Tyne and Wear Metro – are facing 11 years difference in how long they are expected to lead healthy and active lives before they are hit by a serious disease or disability.

Now, a project at Newcastle University called Initiative on Changing Age is getting ready to form radical, targeted strategies which have the potential to save the NHS millions and reduce the staggering disparities not only in the region but across the UK.

The likelihood of a person suffering age-related, chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and some cancers can be multiplied by their environment and lifestyle.

As it stands, the region has some of the UK’s most glaring health inequalities, with the life expectancy of people in Newcastle’s South Gosforth, for example, almost eight years higher than for those living in Byker.

The mission of the simulation project is to halve the gap in healthy life expectancy between social classes in the North East for people aged 55 – the age regarded as ‘the last chance saloon’ for tackling long lasting health problems – in the next 10 years.

Health experts, academics, members of the Newcastle City Council Health and Wellbeing board, clinical commissioning groups and those from both industry and the voluntary sector will take part in an intensive two-day exercise next Friday and Saturday to draw up solutions.

The project was showcased at the British Science Festival earlier this month and will see people from the region participate.

Professor Tom Kirkwood, Director of Newcastle University’s Initiative on Changing Age, said: “A short ride on public transport will carry you between areas where people have widely different expectations of healthy life.

“For example, people living in Ponteland might expect 11 more healthy years than someone half-an-hour away on the Metro line in Byker.”

While the project will not explore the socioeconomic problems of the region’s more deprived areas, experts are convinced specific healthier living plans will make an impact. Professor Kirkwood said: “It is urgent we find new ways to reduce inequalities in health across our region and elsewhere. We are living longer and we want the benefits to be shared by all, so that the extra years we are gaining are genuinely worth having.

“The simulation will allow us to bring fresh energy to finding new ways to tackle the unacceptable unfairness that currently exists in the length of time people can expect to live without debilitating health issues. The gains will be good for maintaining quality of life as well as for avoiding preventable high-cost dependency.”

Professor Peter Gore, the university’s professor of practice for ageing and vitality, said: “This is so much more than just an academic exercise. It is an exciting opportunity to try some radical solutions, and some not-so-radical ones, and produce a template for change that can be utilised by other authorities and scrutinised by central government.”

The work is being supported by the National Institute for Health Research and Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre in ageing and chronic disease based at Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

The project needs people who earn more than £1,000 a week to take part. Call 0191 208 1303.

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