Gaming simulation hopes to reduce life expectancy gap

Living a few miles apart can have a decade difference in how long people lead active lives

When a team chooses to apply an intervention it is considered “a move”, much like a snakes and ladders game. Photograph: Druyts.t/ Wikipedia

When a team chooses to apply an intervention it is considered “a move”, much like a snakes and ladders game. Photograph: Druyts.t/ Wikipedia

Wed, Sep 11, 2013, 20:51

A unique simulation, akin to ‘war gaming’, has been launched to help find ways to reduce gaps in “healthy life expectancy”.

People living only a few miles apart can face over a decade’s difference in how long they can expect to lead healthy and active lives. The new simulation was launched yesterday at the British Science Festival and aims to discover which strategies reduce this gap in health inequality without increasing spending on health or social care.

People in different areas have “widely different expectations of healthy life”, said Prof Tom Kirkwood, director of Newcastle University’s Initiative on Changing Age and one of the researchers involved. “If you hop on the Jubilee line of the London underground heading southwest, you can shed a year for every stop on the line,” he said.

Health experts, academics, members of the city council’s Health and Wellbeing board, clinical commissioning groups, people from industry and the voluntary sector, as well as people aged 55 and over, will take part.

The mission is to identify ways to “reduce by 50 per cent the difference in healthy life expectancy between social classes for people aged 55 in the next ten years”, said Prof Kirkwood.

The experts believe that opportunities for healthier living might make a real difference in age-related, chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and some cancers. All of these are made more likely by environment and lifestyle factors, including poor diet, lack of physical activity, smoking and alcohol, according to the researchers.

Two teams will compete in the simulation, which the researchers liken to a board game connected to a computer model. Everyone involved will be briefed on available “interventions”. When a team chooses to apply an intervention it is considered “a move”, much like a snakes and ladders game, they explained.

“It comes out of war gaming really - a bit like capturing the fortress on the hilltop, but the aim is to develop a strategy,” said Prof Kirkwood. “Choices made by the teams get sanity-tested at various stages and are put to a vote.”

The teams are monitored “big brother style” and experts will be on hand to project what might be the consequences of interventions. At each move, the model will “compute a score to close or widen the gap”.

“It’s a game but we’ve spent a lot of preparatory time and money getting it ready,” added Prof Kirkwood.

A theoretical “win” closes the gap and achieves the goals of the health project.

The participants will be provided with available interventions but there will be opportunities to suggest new ones, said the researchers. “Human factors come into it,” said Peter Gore, professor of practice for ageing at Newcastle University.

“There’s no way you could write their decisions in without involving them,” he added. “There will be Eureka moments that wouldn’t have happened without people.”

“This is so much more than an academic exercise,” said Prof Gore. “It is an exciting opportunity to try some radical solutions.”

The simulation will take place over two days later this month and is expected to deliver a format that can be replayed in any other region in the world.

Dr Gavin Collins (@gcollinsgalway) is based at NUI Galway and is on placement at The Irish Times as a British Science Association Media Fellow, in collaboration with Science Foundation Ireland