ageing -
living longer
and healthier

Across the UK – and indeed the world – people are living longer. According to the World Health Organization, between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world's population over 60 years is expected to nearly double from 12% to 22%.

While the population is ageing rapidly, it doesn’t necessarily mean people are living well for longer – and leading healthy, fulfilling and independent lives.

As outlined by the Centre for Ageing Better in its The State of Ageing 2022 report, the number of years people can expect to spend in good health in England, without a disabling illness, continues to decline. For men, this is reported as 62.4 years, and for women 60.9 years.

What is healthy ageing?

So, what is meant by the term ‘healthy ageing’?

The World Health Organization defines it as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age."

Myra Conway, Professor in Biomedical Sciences and University Lead for Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at the University of Derby, explains: “Advances in medicine and public health provision, for example, now mean that people are living longer than previous generations. However, this does not translate as living well longer and as we age there is an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia-related conditions. 

“Healthy ageing is the process of living well whilst ageing, almost like reaching your full potential physically and mentally, and this includes taking care of your cognitive and psychological wellbeing – vitality, and your functional capacity – mobility."

In 2020, The United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030) strategy was launched, with the aim of “improving the lives of older people, their families, and the communities in which they live."

Bringing together governments, businesses, academics and media – to name but a few – the plan emphasises the "urgent need for a decade of concerted global action" to ensure that “older people can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment."

The plan follows on from, and supports, the globally-agreed Sustainable Development Goals, which were launched in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and were adopted by all UN Member States. These 17 Goals focus on key global challenges that need to be tackled to ensure a more sustainable and thriving future for all – with the health and wellbeing of older adults highlighted within.  

Ken Bluestone, Head of Policy and Influencing at Age International – a charity which is dedicated to helping older people in developing countries – says this focus is much needed.

“A person’s ability to live well longer isn’t just about their biological intrinsic capacity, it’s about the approach and the way a person lives their life. Healthy ageing is more than getting rid of disease, it’s about giving a person the support they need to manage their health conditions and participate fully in society. It is also about recognising the diversity of that experience and that not everyone’s functional ability will be the same."

It is clear that healthy ageing is a global concern, but what can be implemented to have a positive impact and help support healthy ageing?

“The most notable link is the one between diet and exercise, that influences cognitive wellbeing, as well as cardiovascular health," explains Professor Conway. "Another good example is maintaining functional capacity, for example bone health – maintaining optimal bone density into later life by taking part in weight bearing exercise, and paying attention to nutrient intake that promotes bone health, such as Vitamin D. 

“Areas less well described but that are gaining traction are the importance of meditation, mindfulness, and singing for the brain."

Myra Conway smiling outside of the University's Kedleston Road site

Healthy ageing is the process of living well whilst ageing, almost like reaching your full potential physically and mentally, and this includes taking care of your cognitive and psychological wellbeing – vitality, and your functional capacity – mobility.

Myra Conway
Professor and University Lead for Biomedical and Clinical Sciences

Research to support healthy ageing at Derby

Researchers at Derby are playing a key role in tackling disease, enhancing physical and mental wellbeing, supporting behaviour change and promoting quality of life across all ages.  

“From embryonic health to preventing falls in older adults, our research importantly stretches the lifespan enabling innovation and novel contribution that impacts healthy ageing," says Dr Sally Akehurst, Head of the School of Human Sciences at the University.

“We target prevention, treatment, management, and rehabilitation of mental and physical conditions in order to maintain human quality of life, as early-stage health can determine later stage conditions in older age."

This spans across the wider University too.

Combining expertise in manufacturing, psychology and health, a team of researchers at Derby and the NHS were recently awarded funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) after success in the US-run Healthy Ageing Catalyst Awards to support elderly stroke patients with ankle mobility problems.

The project aims to use 3D scanning and printing to create custom-designed orthotics, providing increased mobility for patients.

According to the Stroke Association, there are 1.3 million stroke survivors in the UK.

“Approximately 60% of them are 65 years and older,” says Urvashi Gunputh, Researcher in Additive Manufacturing at the University. “One of the issues they have is lower limb weakness, which impacts on their mobility. The aim of this work is to enhance the quality of life of elderly stroke survivors by improving their mobility, which will in turn mitigate the psychological side effects."

Getting active

The importance of physical activity and movement in older adults is also a prime concern for the University’s Professor Andy Pringle, whose research investigates how community programmes and schemes that help people to be physically active are implemented.

Professor Pringle worked on the 2019 UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Recommendations, which set out convincing evidence of the role of a physically active lifestyle in the management and prevention of a number of long term health conditions. This includes the positive role that physical activity can play on promoting mental and social wellbeing and is an important element in healthy ageing across the lifespan from children through to older adults.

“Physical activity is one important ingredient in the healthy ageing process,” he says. “It is crucial that we help people to add years to life, but also to add life to years, ensuring that people can do all the things they enjoy in everyday life and make a valuable contribution to society."

With colleagues at the University and external partners, Professor Pringle’s research explores how physical activity can be beneficially delivered to older adults. One particular scheme that he has been working to evaluate is CARE (Cancer and Rehabilitation Exercise), a physical activity programme run by Notts County Foundation aimed at helping people living with and beyond cancer to begin, return and keep physically active.

The work emphasises the importance of healthy approaches even in the context of disease.

“While we may think about the physical health benefits of activity and cancer, our research with participants of CARE shows just how important the mental and social health benefits are to people too,” he says. “Participants reported that being active was a positive act at a time when there are a lot of difficult issues to contend with during cancer diagnosis and treatment. So many people talked about the feelings of achievement when improving their functionality too."

Staying connected

As outlined by Professor Pringle’s research, as well as physical activity, social connectivity is key for supporting with healthy ageing.

The positive impact singing has on people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing is the work Dr Yoon Irons, Associate Professor of Arts for Health and Wellbeing at the University, focuses on.

“After Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's is the second most common neurodegenerative disease and the likelihood of getting it increases with older age," she explains.

“My research looks at how regular group singing can help people with Parkinson’s disease. As well as increasing lung function and helping to keep the body active, group singing has shown to significantly reduce depression, as well as anxiety and stress levels.

“People reported that the singing programme gave them purpose and that that they looked forward to the sessions and meeting other people; the programme actually extended their social life and this is key in supporting with healthy ageing."

Dr Yoon Irons smiling

After Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's is the second most common neurodegenerative disease and the likelihood of getting it increases with older age.

Dr Yoon Irons
Associate Professor of Arts for Health and Wellbeing at the University

Mental wellbeing

In other areas of the University, the mental wellbeing of older adults in the workplace is being researched.

The University’s Mental Health Productivity Pilot, funded by Midlands Engine and now the Department for Work and Pensions, supports businesses to ensure they nurture age-friendly workplaces, maximise employee engagement, health and wellbeing, and to ensure retention of talent in their organisation.

Flexible learning, creating opportunities for lifelong learning, investing in and valuing staff wellbeing are just some of the areas that businesses can support with healthy ageing, according to Project Manager Kate Wood.

“The business case for being an age-friendly employer is quite simple,” she explains. “Society is not homogeneous. Most organisations recognise the value of having a diverse workforce, bringing together different life experiences, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations and thinking styles. Age is no different.

“With more over 50s likely to be in work than those under 30 in the next decade, employers need to act now to attract talented, experienced older workers to their organisations or they are likely to miss out."

Diet and nutrition

In addition, the research by Dr’s Stella Ademowo, Jinit Masania, Aparna Duggirala and Vadivel Parthsarathy, is looking at how diet and nutrition has implications for ageing, while the Facility for Omics Research in Metabolism (FORM), based at the University’s Kedleston Road site, explores the effects that food, vitamins, supplements and drugs have on the human body to improve health outcomes and status.

Researchers are contributing to the advancement of personalised medicine through better understanding of diseases and identification of new and innovative solutions to improve health, and prevent and treat diseases. 

Professor Gyan Tripathi, Director of FORM and a Professor of Human Physiology, is investigating the impact of obesity on various metabolic diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and the importance of prevention in helping people to lead independent and healthy lives.

“Obesity is one of the leading causes of disability in an ageing population and its prevalence is increasing at an alarming rate world-wide, therefore understanding the causes of this disease is critical to the population's future wellbeing. At Derby, we are investigating preventative as well as therapeutic approaches so that obesity-linked metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, dementia, cancer, and cardiovascular disease could be prevented or treated respectively.

“The key is trying to pre-empt and prevent. People who are already suffering, of course, need medication and proper intervention but wouldn’t it be better for the next generation if we can prevent the majority of the population going through that process?

“The work we are doing at FORM is concerned with prevention and ensuring people have a good quality of life. If we can inform doctors, clinicians and physicians to take certain steps or provide good diagnostic tools, for example, they can then advise patients earlier on of the potential impacts later on in life."

The future

Although these research projects are just a few examples of how the University is supporting with healthy ageing, it is clear that it is a topic of growing importance.  

While more change – and pace – is required, Ken says there is hope for the future.  

“Though it may not be known to the average person on the street, the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing plan is a very important signal of recognition by all the different functions and parts of the UN system and its member governments that there is something here that really needs to be paid attention to. It does give me optimism that we are going in the right direction.

“Looking at how the UK government is framing its approach to its international development, you can see that it is beginning to take on board that the world is getting older and that there is a responsibility of the government to take demographic ageing seriously."

The challenge now is how these wider goals and targets are achieved as well as ensuring the focus and momentum continues, says Ken.

“The key is ensuring that we retain better health outcomes for people of all ages and that the whole life course is looked at.  

“The way that we are going to achieve change is by reframing our understanding of older people in society. We have to take that transformative step of recognising that human beings – of all ages – should have the same rights and dignity. We know that older people in poorer countries, for example, don’t have equal access to healthcare and this needs to be addressed."

Ken Bluestone smiling

The key is ensuring that we retain better health outcomes for people of all ages and that the whole life course is looked at.

Ken Bluestone
Head of Policy and Influencing at Age International

As well as the many challenges, there are opportunities surrounding healthy ageing too.

Using the experiences of older people and ensuring they are respected as knowledge bearers and recognising the important role they play can be incredibly valuable to society, says Ken.

This is echoed by the Department for International Trade, which, in its 2021 ‘Healthy Ageing: Solutions to a global challenge’ report, says: “As the world faces huge crises such as the climate and ecological emergency, we need the wisdom of age more than ever before.”

Investment, innovation and technology, as well cutting-edge research, are all listed as positive opportunities for healthy ageing in the Department’s report too.

And Kate agrees. “With more people working well into their 60s and beyond, we will potentially have five generations of people working together. This brings challenges for employers but huge opportunities too."

“Healthy ageing is an important issue worldwide but there is an incredible variation in what it looks like and means for different people," adds Professor Pringle. “Some people want to run marathons and climb mountains, while others want to continue to work, do their sporting and leisure interests, and look after their family and extended family.

“For some people they not only want but need to do some of those activities. Some older people need to continue to work for financial security, they also need to look after their family and undertake voluntary service in their local communities.

“The key is appreciating the amazing diversity of abilities and experiences we have and ensure we take healthy ageing seriously."

Written by Kelly Tyler

Students looking at a screen in the Facility for Omics Research in Metabolism (FORM) based at the University's Kedleston Road site

Biomedical Science and Human Biology undergraduate courses

Find out more about studying Biomedical Science and Human Biology at the University of Derby.

View our Biomedical Science and Human Biology undergraduate coursesView our Biomedical Science and Human Biology undergraduate courses