Our life span is increasing – but what about our health span? Launched on November 26, the Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing (NIHA) is a new research group bringing together scientists, policy makers and the local community to explore how we can live longer, healthier and more satisfying lives.

Eastern Daily Press: Professor Anne-Marie Minihane, director of Norwich Institute of Healthy AgeingProfessor Anne-Marie Minihane, director of Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing (Image: UEA/Henry Iddon)

As a society we are living longer: the average life expectancy in the UK is increasing at a rate of two to three years every decade. Yet our healthy life expectancy – the projected number of remaining years in good health – is not increasing at the same rate.

This discrepancy between our life span and health span has major implications for public health, the economy and our national health service – and is the focus of a new research institute interrogating the science behind how we can lead healthier lives into old age.

Launched on November 26, the Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing (NIHA) brings together researchers from Norwich Research Park and UEA with Norwich City Council, Norfolk County Council, local community groups and commercial partners to investigate the social, cultural, economic, geographical and environmental determinants of behaviours that impact public health.

The new institute will see researchers collaborate on reducing the risk of a range of health issues – from dementia and diabetes to heart disease. They will explore how behaviour changes such as improved nutrition, regular exercise, socialisation and sleep hygiene can lead to better physical and mental health.

Director Professor Anne-Marie Minihane said: “We are living longer than ever before, but we are not necessarily living healthier lives. The average person in the UK spends around 15-20 years living with a clinical diagnosis of a disease, such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease. We need to add life to years along with years to life.

“There are many changes that could improve people’s overall wellbeing, physical and mental health and reduce the risk of disease. We will focus on the benefits of health interventions such as stopping smoking, doing more exercise, or eating a more balanced diet.”

Research shows that individuals with poor cardiovascular health – such as those who are overweight, diabetic or have high blood pressure – are at a higher risk of cognitive decline in old age. Clinical trials at NIHA will examine which dietary components and behaviour patterns can help preserve brain function, with a particular focus on omega-3 fatty acids and a Mediterranean-style diet high in oily fish, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive oil, but low in red meat. This research will then be used to develop bespoke dietary recommendations for individuals based on their genetic and metabolic profile.

By implementing these strategies now, future generations of older people will stay healthier for longer and the delayed onset of disease will result in significant social and economic benefits. In the UK today, the average annual cost of healthcare per person is £2,424. Projections estimate that an investment of £1,000 per person into adopting healthy behaviours in mid-life has the potential to save £10,000 in health care costs further down the line.

Our current trajectory will be unsustainable for the NHS and social care delivery, and so a proactive focus on prevention and healthy ageing is needed to ensure a better quality of life for ourselves while lessening the strain on public services.

With its centre for world-class research at Norwich Research Park and an ageing population (25pc of the population of Norfolk is aged over 65), Norwich is the perfect environment in which to conduct scientific inquiry into this vital area. NIHA aims to take its research into the community, developing pioneering interventions and encouraging healthy behaviours in a sustained and integrated way to promote wellbeing in East Anglia and beyond.

Professor Minihane adds: “Importantly, we will prioritise, plan and co-produce the research with local communities and local government, commercial partners and policy makers – to ensure that our research translates into real change for better local and wider public health.”

Adam Clark, strategy manager at Norwich City Council, said: “Norwich is a fine city with a great quality of life for many. But there are significant differences in health and life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas. Norwich City Council is pleased to be working with UEA as part of the Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing to understand how, as a society, we can close this gap and improve everybody’s wellbeing.”

For more information visit healthyageingnorwich.com