Changing the conversation about ageing

The University of Sheffield Healthy Lifespan Institute is the first institute in the UK focussed on preventing age-related illness throughout a person’s life, not just at the very end.

Happy couple in sunset

When we think about ageing we often imagine an elderly relative, perhaps our parents or grandparents or great aunts and uncles. These thoughts are often followed by concerns about the challenges they face in their old age; immobility, loss of independence and potential pain. We want them to live well into their golden years, but thinking about ageing only in terms of the final chapters of life is preventing us from making sure this happens.

Continuous improvements in health care, sanitation, diet and education have brought about a steady decline in death rates, extending the life course of humans. We’re living longer than ever, allowing us to do more, see more and live fuller lives. However, it’s also contributing to a global epidemic. As more of us age further there are a new set of challenges relating to how we age and how this links to age related illnesses.

To overcome these we need to realise a key thing first: ageing begins in the womb. We need to understand the full narrative of our lives and learn more about the medical, environmental, political and societal factors that shape our stories, from the moment we’re conceived to our last breath. We need to change the conversation about ageing.

We're launching the first institute in the UK focused on preventing age-related illness throughout a person’s life, not just at the very end: the Healthy Lifespan Institute at the University of Sheffield.

Through the institute we’ll bring together the medical and social sciences to fill a fundamental gap in expertise and focus. Our aim is to tackle the rapidly increasing global epidemic of multimorbidity - two or more chronic health conditions in a person - to ensure a disability-free life for everyone, from childhood, throughout adulthood and into older age.

Man using a laptop

Living healthier for longer

Nobody expects to have to rely on others to do simple things, like eat, drink or walk but sadly it’s a common fate for those suffering from multimorbidity. A chronic health condition can be distressing enough on its own, without the addition of a second, third or fourth one. Take severe Alzheimer's for example: you’re unable to perform simple tasks, communicate with loved ones and you’re easily disoriented. When this is combined with cardiovascular disease or hearing loss, circumstances can be unbearable.

Multimorbidity is a major problem and is thought to affect around a quarter of the UK population. Not only is it a strain on health services and the economy, but it’s one of the main drivers for increased levels of frailty and people losing their independence.

Our vision is to change this. Ageing is a major risk factor contributing to multimorbidity. Our increased understanding of how ageing drives the development of age-related diseases means that we can now step in and delay ageing by intervening on the social, economic, environmental and biological factors driving it.

We have experts in active ageing, age-related diseases and the underlying mechanisms of ageing, who will use existing and new knowledge to design and test interventions throughout the life course, to help everyone live healthier, independent lives for longer and reduce the cost of care.

Our multidisciplinary team will look at the social, economic and environmental factors that have a negative impact on people’s health throughout their lives - in combination with what is happening inside the body as we age - to develop and promote new drugs, policies and practices to reduce the impact of multimorbidity and improve future health prospects.

Couple playing the piano

While the knowledge of our researchers is world ranking, without the right partnerships and technologies we’d be unable to tackle this grand challenge. It’s therefore vital that we’re working in close collaboration with the local health community.

Our mission is to ensure that the public, including service user and patient groups, are at the heart of our research. This means we can produce policies and treatments that recognise and account for the specific needs of different groups, before communicating our findings to influence government policy, public health and medical practice across the UK.

These new policies, products and services will target factors across the life course which contribute toward multimorbidity as we age.

We have experts in active ageing, age-related diseases and the underlying mechanisms of ageing, who will use existing and new knowledge to design and test interventions throughout the life course, to help everyone live healthier, independent lives for longer and reduce the cost of care.

As for technology, we have access to a number of collaborative facilities including an experimental biomechanics lab, a mechanobiology lab and a movement and perception lab. Within medicine, we’re deploying a new medical image processing and modelling lab in cardiovascular science. These facilities will help transform our understanding of the causes and effects of serious age-related diseases which claim the lives of millions of people every year. Technologies like these will enable us to study everything, from the smallest molecule to something as complex as a human body.

Right now, the UK, and indeed the world, needs an institute that combines world-renowned research knowledge with exceptional technology and unbeatable innovation to allow us to thrive throughout our life course. Ageing should no longer be just be about our parents, grandparents or great aunts and uncles, it should be about our very existence every minute of everyday. We’re ageing from the day we’re conceived and it’s time we all see it that way.

Research pillars

Our research is centered around three pillars which combine a wide range of research, from medical to social science, to produce new products, practices and policies.

Our three research pillars