The life expectancy of people living in sub-Saharan Africa is rising, but it still remains significantly lower than other global regions. However, innovations that could be developed through a new research programme may well raise it more in line with global norms.

The new research programme will encompass an “Ageing Check-up” run by community nurses and therapists for use in the region and, led by researchers from the University of Bristol in the UK, will analyse 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 old. 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 which will work within a newly-launched Global Health and Ageing Research Unit to ensure there is a positive impact on older people’s health for many years to come.

“Thanks to advances in health and sanitation, people globally are living longer than ever before – with the greatest changes happening in Africa,” says Prof Gregson. “In these added years of life, older people understandably want health and well-being, 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 an ‘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,” says Prof Gregson.