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18/04/2014

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Health games: narrowing the health equality divide

By Richard Johnston

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People living just eight miles apart could experience a difference in healthy life expectancy of 11 years. Driven by this disparity, researchers at Newcastle University have developed a game to address the large gap in health equality.

The Healthy Life Simulation is an interactive activity, with players drawn from groups including health experts, academics, members of Newcastle City Council Health and Wellbeing board, in addition to people from the local community aged 55 or above.

Tom Kirkwood, Director of Newcastle University’s Initiative on Changing Age highlighted the problem - “In Newcastle, for example, people living in Ponteland might expect 11 more healthy years than someone half-an-hour away on the Metro line in Byker.”

The simulation will run for two days, with the aim of reducing by 50% the gap in healthy life expectancy between social classes in the North East for people aged 55, within a 10-year timeframe. Two teams will face off against each other, trying to minimize the gap in healthy life expectancy. Participants will consider health research and social policy options – suggesting associated interventions while simultaneously considering constraints such as time, funding and efficacy.

Initially, the simulation will be trialed in the North East, but the researchers claim this concept can be translated for other areas by modifying and updating the content. “In some areas of London, you shed a year of healthy life expectancy for every tube station you pass” Kirkwood says. Some of the effects are less localized, and the underlying causes are more complex than simple affluence measures. “Cuba is relatively poor, but has a higher healthy life expectancy than the USA” added Kirkwood.

The gap in life expectancy can be traced back through a model that links diseases such as diabetes and heart disease to risk factors like obesity, education and smoking – which can be improved by health interventions. Policy makers need to consider many factors when deciding which areas are of highest priority, and which interventions to fund. The game will put players in this position, simulating and accelerating the processes, and visualizing instantaneous impacts of funding decisions. A major constraint in the game will be that players cannot increase spending on public health or social care.

Peter Gore, Professor of Practice for Ageing and Vitality at Newcastle University emphasized the scale of the issue and the work that needs to be done, saying “We need to reduce the widening gap in health inequality between social classes that is common to both advanced and emerging economies. It’s not only a regional issue but a global one”.

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