Research Intelligence: Help the aged

A multidisciplinary initiative aims to defuse the UK's demographic time bomb. Neha Popat reports

May 20, 2010

Advances in healthcare and a greater awareness of healthy lifestyles are factors contributing to the UK's rapidly ageing population.

Britain's fastest-growing age group is the over-85s, with forecasts suggesting that its number will more than double to 3.2 million by 2033. In light of this pressing need to investigate the ageing process, the cross-research council initiative Lifelong Health and Wellbeing (LLHW) has recently announced a call for its third phase.

A total of £12.5 million in new investment will be made available as the research councils seek to prioritise investigations to identify the major determinants of health and wellbeing in later life. The scheme also aims to help develop effective interventions to improve the elderly's quality of life.

The scheme is managed by the Medical Research Council and run in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the health departments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It will seek to build on the initiative's previous phases by bringing together expertise from a variety of areas.

Multidisciplinary collaborations will be the key to successful applications, which are being encouraged across a range of themes where there is a need for further evidence.

These include: "Mental health and wellbeing", which incorporates a focus on preserving cognitive function and "exploiting mental capital"; "Resilience for successful ageing", which covers both biological and societal factors; and "Age-related conditions", including frailty and interventions to promote independence in later life.

However, in a change from previous phases, applicants will not be constrained by these themes and are welcome to apply for funding for research they think is necessary, regardless of how it matches up with the stated priorities.

Freedom to think

Ghada Zoubiane, research programme manager at the MRC, said the broad guidelines would give applicants more freedom, which would prove beneficial.

"The open focus will promote more innovative examinations and allow researchers to submit ideas about what they feel are the challenges faced by an ageing population," she explained.

The intention is to encourage proposals that would not usually attract funding from individual research councils or health departments, she added.

Dr Zoubiane said that this was necessary to add value to the investigations already carried out during the LLHW's initial phases.

"Research into the ageing process entails looking at factors that cover a range of disciplines and ... can no longer be limited to one specific area of study," she said.

In a first for the scheme, £2.5 million will be set aside to finance up to 10 pilot studies for a maximum of two years.

This funding is intended to support innovative small-scale projects that test hypotheses and develop solutions to issues of particular concern to the elderly.

Dr Zoubiane said that it would provide "great opportunities" for researchers whose work may not be mature enough to receive full grants, but which has the potential to deliver "high-impact" outcomes.

The closing date for the pilot projects is 15 September.

The rest of the funding will be made available for research grants, with sums of £300,000 to £2.5 million available for projects lasting between two and five years.

Outline applications for these grants are required by 30 June, with successful applicants being invited to submit full applications in September.

With the percentage of over-65s in society set to overtake those aged 16 or under by 2033, Louise Robinson, professor of primary care and ageing at Newcastle University's Institute of Health and Society, said it was time to bolster the research effort in the field.

She added that academics must help society understand the "highly complex phenomenon of ageing" via studies of "genetic as well as environmental factors".

Professor Robinson suggested that the research focus on high-profile diseases such as cancer had led to the neglect of other illnesses affecting the elderly.

She added that there was a lot of "negativity" about age-related disorders and said that social attitudes had to change. "We need to look at ways of adjusting positively to ageing rather than focusing on the negative," she said.

neha.popat@tsleducation.com

http://bit.ly/bQaT9T.

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