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New research study will help people in sub-Saharan Africa age well

Updated: May 24, 2023

Life expectancy of people living in sub-Saharan Africa is rising, though it remains lower than other regions globally. Innovations are promised thanks to a new research programme that will develop an ‘Ageing Check-up’ run by community nurses and therapists for use in the region.

The programme, led by researchers from the University of Bristol in the UK, will analyze data from 5,030 older adults living in Zimbabwe, The Gambia, and South Africa, to understand how commonly people are ageing healthily - and unhealthily - and how this influences quality of life.

Led by Celia Gregson, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Bristol and The Health Research Unit Zimbabwe (THRU ZIM), the five-year programme ‘Healthy ageing in sub-Saharan Africa’ will develop an evidence-based clinical framework to assess and manage chronic disorders of ageing, such as walking, balance, nutrition, memory, mood, eyesight, and hearing.

The team will work with a range of stakeholders including healthcare experts and older people themselves to develop a health check-up for people over 65 years. The check-up will be trialled in Zimbabwe to assess the feasibility, acceptability, effectiveness, and costs of implementing community-based health checks.

Towards the end of the research programme a set of tools will be developed to guide the person-centred assessment and management of older people, ready for scale-up across sub-Saharan Africa.

Known health problems in the region, including Zimbabwe, include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, back and joint pain, depression and anxiety, HIV, uncorrected vison and hearing impairments, malnutrition including obesity, and undiagnosed memory decline.

During the £2 million study, the Bristol-Zimbabwe collaborative research team will grow a highly skilled and experienced Global Health and Ageing Research team who will work within a newly launched Global Health and Ageing Research Unit at the University and The Health Research Unit Zimbabwe (THRU ZIM), to ensure there is a positive impact on older people’s health for many years to come.

Professor Gregson, the programme lead from the University of Bristol, said: “Thanks to advances in health and sanitation, around the world people are living longer than ever before, with the greatest changes happening in Africa. In these added years of life, older people understandably want health and wellbeing, which is ‘healthy ageing’.

“However, healthcare services are not currently set up to provide for rapidly ageing populations, meaning older people are more likely to be living with disability and dependence.

“We want to understand why some people age healthily and some ‘unhealthily’ in Zimbabwe, The Gambia, and South Africa, and then develop a ‘Ageing Check-up’, run by nurses and therapists in local communities, where older people can be assessed and offered practical management to maintain their health as they age.”

Professor Gregson is one of four leading health researchers working in Africa and Asia who have been awarded the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Global Research Professorships in this most recent round. Each award includes a leadership and development programme, and funding for early-career research and support posts. This award is complimented by additional investment from the University of Bristol.

NIHR Global Research Professorships are awarded to academic leaders with a track-record of applied health research in low and middle income countries. Since 2018, eight Global Research Professorships have been awarded, to leaders in areas as diverse as HIV, hospital-acquired infections and global disability.

The five-year NIHR Global Health Professorship programme ‘Healthy Ageing in sub-Saharan Africa’ was awarded £1,994,094 and started on 1 April 2023 (ref: NIHR302394).

About the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:

  • Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care;

  • Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services;

  • Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research;

  • Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges;

  • Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system;

  • Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries.

NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.

The NIHR is the research partner of the NHS, public health and social care.

About NIHR Global Research Professorships The Global Research Professorship award is NIHR’s flagship career development award. It aims to fund research leaders to promote effective translation of research and to strengthen research leadership at the highest academic levels.

The Global Research Professorship programme supports outstanding academics to work at professorial level. The programme funds researchers undertaking research that aims to specifically and primarily benefit people in LMICs eligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA).

NIHR Global Research Professorships are fixed term five-year appointments (a maximum of 60 months) offering funding of up to £2 million, including a leadership and development programme and several support posts.

This scheme is open to all professions and all higher education institutions (HEI) based in the UK and HEIs or research institutes in LMICs which are already partners in NIHR Global Health Research. Institutions can nominate health, public health and social care researchers and methodologists with an outstanding research record of clinical and applied health, public health or care research and its effective translation for improved health and welfare of people in LMICs.

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