University of Leeds: Creating new diets to extend healthy old age

Older adults could benefit from the development of a new research network into new diets and foods that reflect their specific needs, thanks to new funding.

The Food4Years research network, funded by the UK Research Institute (UKRI), will look at the diets of older people and find new ways of tackling chronic malnutrition which leaves one in 10 either at risk of, or already, not eating enough energy or sufficient micronutrients.

New foods and diets will be considered as consumers, businesses, charities, and health professionals work together with academics to deliver changes that promote healthy, affordable foods and diets for older adults.

Leeds is one of five academic institutions in the network, launched this week.

This network seeks to co-produce diets and foods which meet the ageing population’s nutrition requirements while maintain a focus on ageing well.

Professor Marion Hetherington, School of Psychology
Marion Hetherington, Professor Emerita in Biopsychology at Leeds’s School of Psychology, said: “Designing and marketing foods for older consumers presents a problem since older people do not perceive themselves as belonging to this market segment.

“Furthermore, psychological, social and biological changes with ageing such as anorexia, loss of taste, smell and oral capacity reduce older consumers’ interest and ability to consume a healthy, varied diet.

“This network seeks to co-produce diets and foods which meet the ageing population’s nutrition requirements while maintaining a focus on ageing well.”

Incidence rates for chronic diseases are increasing, with treatments effectively allowing people to live with their disease for longer. Many age-related chronic conditions are linked to poor diet.

Food4Life aims to look beyond extending life years by promoting better wellbeing and quality of life within this extended lifespan. This is of relevance for people living in disadvantaged communities.

Multidisciplinary research
The network is led by Dr Miriam Clegg, Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Reading, and in collaboration with researchers at the University of Birmingham, the University of Liverpool, and the University of Surrey.

Dr Clegg said: “Older people face many barriers when trying to follow a balanced diet, and not nearly enough attention is given to what support, guidance and food products are available to help us positively change our diets as we age. The Food4Years network aims to work together with consumers, businesses, charities and other organisations to understand and deliver a step-change in the way we think about our diets as we get older.

“As one in ten people over 65 are at a risk or experience malnutrition, this is an issue that has major implications for public health. It’s therefore crucial that networks like Food4Years are able to find a menu for changing the way we understand, promote and create food that is healthy, convenient and affordable.”

Lisa Methven, Professor of Food and Sensory Science at the University of Reading, a co-investigator within the partnership said: “As we get older it’s not only our nutritional needs that change – the way we perceive foods often changes too alongside our purchasing habits and food choices. Our new network creates the opportunity to bring expertise together and ensure food does enable healthier years.”

The Food4Years network is one of 11 new networks that aims to transform ageing research in the UK, funded with £2 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Previous reviews of how to boost ageing research in the UK have found research efforts to be fragmented, focusing on single aspects of ageing. Now these networks aim to provide researchers with strong interdisciplinary platforms to integrate expertise and knowledge across disciplines to deliver a better understanding of the biological mechanisms of ageing and how to increase healthy lifespan and quality of life in old age.

Collaboration
The networks also aim to increase collaboration with stakeholders – including working with the public, industry, charities, policymakers and health practitioners – to translate findings into policy, public health and new therapies.

Professor Richard Faragher, UKRI Ageing Networks Macro Coordinator, said: “We are at the cusp of scientific developments that will transform health in later years. By being able to keep millions of older people healthy and out of hospital, we can hugely reduce costs and pressures on the NHS and GPs. Be in no doubt: a race is now on, and the countries and companies that can capitalise on the biology of ageing will dominate 21st century healthcare.”

Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of UKRI’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said: “At the heart of improved health and wellbeing is a deep, integrated understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that contribute to maintaining health across the full life course: an understanding that is underpinned by collaboration, partnerships and shared knowledge. By funding the Ageing Networks, we’re not only addressing a major societal challenge – we’re also stimulating multidisciplinary research and innovation, with the potential for some really exciting breakthroughs.”

Professor John Iredale, interim Executive Chair of UKRI’s Medical Research Council, said: “How to keep people healthier as they live longer is one of the biggest challenges facing 21st-century medicine and our society. To make greater progress we need to transform how we conduct ageing research – by bringing together scientists from many disciplines with the public, clinicians, policymakers and industry. The new networks we’re funding will build UK-wide collaborations to better understand the fundamentals of ageing, paving the way towards the development of novel interventions to prevent, halt or reverse aberrant ageing.”

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