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The University of Southampton
Public Policy|Southampton

LifeLab: Change the Beginning and You Change the Whole Story


The UK has an ageing population, but while life expectancy continues to improve for the most affluent 10% of our population, it has either stalled or fallen for the most deprived 10%. Moreover, there is a 19-year difference in years spent in good health between the most affluent and the poorest communities. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers account for over 70% of deaths globally and this number of deaths is rising. Behavioural risk factors are the largest contributors to this NCD burden, with smoking, poor diet, high blood pressure, and high body mass index (BMI) being the top contributors. According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), long term conditions, such as NCDs, account for: 69% of health care spend, 77% of inpatient bed days, 55% of GP appointments and 68% of outpatient and emergency appointments. A high burden of resource is needed to support on-going care and treatment of these conditions, as an example of the economic burden of these risk factors - poor diet, along, costs the NHS £6 billion annually. These figures are why prevention of NCDs is one of the highest priorities in the NHS Long Term plan and Public Health England’s strategy for the next five years.

Research in Southampton has led to the now widely accepted concept of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD). In brief, DOHaD research counters the widely held belief that NCDs largely result from a combination of inherited genetic predisposition and unhealthy adult lifestyle. In contrast, DOHaD research has shown that risk is established in very early life, from the moment of conception and in the womb and infancy. The risk results from exposure to unhealthy diet, smoking or obesity in parents, leading to a lifecourse trajectory of increasing propensity to develop NCDs through unhealthy responses to the contemporary world. DOHaD research highlights the importance of adolescence as a crucial time, when health behaviours responsible for NCDs become embedded, tracking into adulthood. Adolescents are the next generation of parents and so adolescence offers a window of opportunity during which improvements in health behaviours not only benefit long-term health of individuals, but also enable them to be better prepared for parenthood, passing better health prospects onto their children, summed up by the tagline the #tripledividend (health now, health in the future and health for future generations).

This is the scientific agenda which underpinned the establishment of LifeLab in Southampton, 0ur research has a focus on the health and wellbeing of young people, driven through education. Engaging adolescents with the science behind the health messages empowers them to understand the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices now, not only for their future health, but for the health of their future children. Understanding the impact of health from a young age but recognising that conventional public health messaging has limited impact on adolescents, our programme uses the power of education, but built around a programme which gives young people a voice to allow us to understand the world they inhabit and solutions for tackling the very real crises which face the next generation as they move into adulthood.

LifeLab’s mission is to empower children and young people through scientific discovery to make positive lifestyle choices for their physical and mental health, wellbeing and resilience now and in the future and for their future children.

Launched in 2008, LifeLab is a unique educational programme created by the University of Southampton in collaboration with the University Hospital Southampton. Located in University Hospital Southampton, LifeLab includes a purpose-built classroom and laboratory facility with state-of-the-art equipment and a dedicated team of educators and support staff. To date more than 11,500 students from 65 schools across the South Coast of England have benefitted from LifeLab’s programmes and over 335 teachers have received LifeLab training in order to support children’s and young people’s move to more healthy behaviours.

LifeLab’s scientists and educators create experiences that empower children and young people to understand the science behind the health messages they are exposed to in everyday life. They provide hands-on activities and experiments which engage young people and spark their interest in their own health and wellbeing. In turn the children and young people learn how their actions impact not only on their own health but on the health of their future children, captured by the phrase: Change the beginning and you change the whole story. By using real laboratory equipment to take part in a range of experiments such as visualising their carotid arteries and extracting their own DNA, students can really get to grips with the science behind what they are learning.

LifeLab is the only facility of its kind in the UK contributing to tackling the current health crisis that our children and young people face.

LifeLab’s Primary Aims
● Reverse the trend of rising unhealthy behaviours and lifestyles for children and young people in the UK.
● Address the link between health behaviours, disadvantaged backgrounds and underachievement to reduce social and health inequalities.
● Co-create with children and young people an environment to allow their voices to be heard, to advocate for change and to enable them to flourish, building resilience for a changing world.

LifeLab’s Secondary Aims
● Undertake research to build the evidence base for ways of enabling change in diet and lifestyle behaviours in children and young people.
● Support and empower teachers and academic staff to encourage behaviour change with their students.
● Increase scientific and health literacy.
● Increase awareness of and interest in STEM subjects and careers to ensure a talented, resourced and diverse future workforce.

Primary Investigator

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