World Health Day 2023 – Celebrating research at The Healthy Lifespan Institute

To celebrate World Health Day, we are shining the spotlight on pioneering and leading research that has been carried out by Sheffield University’s Healthy Lifespan Institute.

Grandson and grandfather laughing while laying on grass

The 7th of April is recognised as World Health Day 2023, led by the World Health Organisation to promote health and well-being for all. The 75th anniversary is marked by observing public health successes that have improved health equality along with action that has tackled the challenges in society.

To celebrate this day, we are shining the spotlight on pioneering and leading research that has been carried out by Sheffield University’s Healthy Lifespan Institute.

Our talented teams work tirelessly to advance our understanding of health inequalities and the effects on ageing, to improve health outcomes and better people’s quality of life.

Below, you can read about our healthy lifespan mission and some of the research that has taken place at the institute.

#HealthForAll #WHO75

Our Mission

Mother, daughter, granddaughter

Our rate of ageing is variable and malleable. From the moment we are conceived there are factors that influence how we age. These include the social and economic environments we live and work in, as well as our individual biology and behaviour.  Our rate of ageing predicts our health span; the number of years we can expect to live an independent, healthy life. The slower our rate of ageing, the more resilient we are to multimorbidity, the presence of two or more chronic health conditions, which leads to frailty, and low quality of life in later years. 

At the Healthy Lifespan Institute, we are trying to transform the experience of ageing. We’re the UK’s first interdisciplinary research institute entirely dedicated to understanding and preventing multimorbidity and frailty - to help everyone live healthier lives for longer.

Traditionally research has focused on either the biological mechanisms of ageing or its social impact but the healthy lifespan institute investigates both the biological and social processes that cause ageing, and how the two interact.

At the Healthy Lifespan Institute, we are developing interventions across the life course that slow down the rate of ageing to increase resilience to age related disease. We do this by:

  • Bring together over 180 academic researchers from different disciplines to provide a uniquely holistic view of the factors that impact how we age.
  • Developing interventions across the life course that slow down the rate of ageing to increase resilience to age related disease.
  • Pioneering new medical treatments, health and social care policies and public health guidance across the lifespan, to help people age better and have healthier, more independent lives for longer. 

Preventing or delaying multimorbidity and frailty

The Healthy Lifespan Institute treats ageing as a risk factor for a wide range of later life diseases, much like smoking is a risk factor in cancer. We are devising practical solutions to slow down the rate of ageing to prevent multimorbidity and boost resilience in frail older adults.

Examples of our research

Investigating ageing as a factor in Parkinson’s disease

Team of scientists in lab coats investigating Parkinson's Disease

Models of Parkinson’s Disease are a critical step in the advancement of understanding of the disease and in the development of new interventions. Parkinson's Disease is a complex multisystem disorder with a spectrum of features and a wide range of in vitro and in vivo models. Each model displays specific combinations of features and/or stages of the disease. However ageing, a risk factor for Parkinson's Disease, is not often considered in the development and use of animal models, potentially omitting an important component of the disease and missing opportunities for the development of new interventions and their translation.  

To combat this, Professor Ilaria Bellantuono, Co-Director of the University of Sheffield’s Healthy Lifespan Institute has joined forces with Professor Heather Mortiboys from the University of Sheffield’s Neuroscience Institute to lead a group of experts and develop a much needed, systematic way to investigate if, and how, ageing increases susceptibility to Parkinson’s Disease. 

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Heart disease causes early brain dysfunction and can treble key Alzheimer’s protein

atherosclerosis in brain

Scientists at The Healthy Lifespan Institute have discovered that heart disease can directly cause brain dysfunction early on which could lead to dementia and can treble the amount of an Alzheimer’s protein in the brain. 

The research found that heart disease causes a breakdown of a key brain function which links brain activity and blood flow, meaning the brain gets less blood for the same amount of activity. 

Until this research was carried out, it had been unclear how some forms of vascular dementia can happen years before atherosclerosis in the brain.

Our researchers also discovered that the combination of heart disease and a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s Disease trebles the amount of beta-amyloid, a protein that builds up and triggers Alzheimer’s, and increases the levels of an inflammatory gene (IL1) in the brain. 

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Anti-age discrimination policies are failing in the workplace

Older male with grey hair doing woodwork

A case study of UK policy has revealed that current anti-age discrimination policies are not being implemented as intended and therefore neglecting those they are supposed to help. 

The study recommends change is urgently required to connect government strategies with employer action and highlights an essential need for a life-course focused strategy that acknowledges ageing inequalities in the workplace.

The research into UK policy was carried out by academics at the Healthy Lifespan Institute, who led the Exclusion and Inequality in late Working life project (EIWO) in the UK - a large-scale, four country study focused on exclusion and inequality in late working life. 

Findings from the research emphasises older workers continue to be treated as a single standardised group and policies previously targeted at supporting older workers have been replaced or extended with policies for workers of all ages.

The project suggests that poor health in later life has a direct correlation with lower academic attainment, low income, manual work and poorer working conditions. Therefore policies focused on tackling inequalities in older workers should be aimed at preventing work-related ill-health that starts as soon as an individual’s working life begins.

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The case for an intersectional life course perspective in understanding unequal ageing

Large group of people representing a diverse society

Research has shown that gender, ethnicity, and social class have a strong impact on our health. Yet the simple fact is that no-one is just a man or woman, or just white or black, or just working class or middle class, but instead we have multiple characteristics that shape our lives.

This ‘intersectionality’ has received an increasing amount of attention in health inequalities research, suggesting that treating social characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic position separately does not reflect our lived reality.

Yet the intersectionality literature has paid very little attention to the nature of ageing or the life course, and gerontology has rarely incorporated insights from intersectionality.

Ageing is unequal and researchers from the Healthy Lifespan Institute have called for intersectionality to incorporate a life course perspective to deliver new insights into unequal ageing, especially regarding health and healthy ageing.

We need the next generation of gerontological students to understand that ageing is unequal

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