From left: Professor Jim Metson, Chief Science Adviser for MBIE; Professor Peter Crampton, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Health Sciences); Hon Steven Joyce, Science and Innovation Minister; Professor Richard Blaikie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise); and Professor David Baxter, Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Health Sciences). Photo: Sharron Bennett.
Researchers from across New Zealand are joining forces for the latest National Science Challenge called Ageing Well – Kia eke kairangi ki te taikaumātuatanga.
The National Science Challenges, initiated through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, are designed to tackle New Zealand’s biggest science-based issues and challenges.
The Ageing Well challenge is to be led through its establishment phase by Professor David Baxter, Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Physiotherapy at the University of Otago, and will be administered out of the School’s Centre for Health, Activity and Rehabilitation Research. It will be partnered by other New Zealand universities including Auckland, Massey, AUT, Waikato, Canterbury, and Victoria, as well as AgResearch and the Centre for Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment (CRESA) in Wellington.
“We are delighted to be at the forefront of this innovative and important National Science Challenge that we hope will ultimately benefit the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders through adding life to years,” says Professor Baxter.
Funding of up to $14.6 million to June 2019 has been approved subject to contract conditions.
The Challenge will support high-quality, mission-led, interdisciplinary research focussed on five key strands:
- Enabling independence and autonomy/tino rangatiratanga of older individuals and their whānau and families
- Ensuring a meaningful life through social integration and engagement
- Recognising at a societal level the value of ongoing contributions of knowledge and experience of older people
- Reducing disability, and
- Developing age-friendly environments.
Professor Richard Blaikie, Otago’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) and co-Chair of the oversight group for the Challenge, emphasises the need for strong inter-institutional collaboration to achieve the Challenge’s 10-year mission.
“If we are going to realise the longevity dividend from having a healthy, independent and socially-connected aged population in Aotearoa then we must have the best minds from the research community and aged care sector working together on the most pressing research questions, finding practical solutions that can be applied in clinical or community settings” he says.
“No single institution has all the expertise or end-user connections that are needed, and Otago is very proud to be taking the lead in coordinating the national effort in this particular Challenge”.
Professor Baxter says people are living longer now, with life expectancy in New Zealand having gone up by around 20 years since 1901, pushing life expectancy for men into the late 70s and women to the low 80s.
“In addition, the share of the total population that is at older ages is increasing. This ‘structural ageing’ is mainly due to declining birth rates and in about a decade people aged 65 and over will exceed the number of children under 15 years of age for the first time in New Zealand’s history.”
While Māori and Pacific peoples are still a youthful population in structural terms, the gap to non-Māori in terms of life expectancy is closing, lifting the proportion of older people across the board.
Professor Baxter says this means that issues related to the health and wellbeing of older people will become more prominent in the lives of families and communities.
“Over coming decades, the number of people with degenerative conditions such as dementia, arthritis, cerebrovascular disease and frailty will increase significantly. Furthermore, growing numbers of older people experiencing social isolation, reduced economic participation, and increasing vulnerability to poverty and sub-optimal living conditions will pose additional challenges.”
Research conducted by the Ageing Well Challenge will focus on these trends, identifying ways to delay the onset and reduce the impact of these conditions.
“We will work with stakeholders on ways to enable health, wellbeing and contributions of older people, right into the later years of life.”