The largest public health research project in Northern Ireland has been launched by Queen's University Belfast to help shape Government policy.
Nicola – the Northern Ireland Cohort for the Longitudinal Study of Ageing – is hoping to provide vital information for the Government by following the lives of 8,500 over-50s as they grow older.
It is to prepare for an "ageing revolution" and as the population grows the findings will enable policy-makers to base Government strategy upon research.
It is expected it will help shape at least 10 major policies including pensions and benefits, dementia services, transport, long-term care and fuel poverty. Through the study, Queen's will give policymakers the same level of information as in Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Nicola consists of three stages: an interview in the home, a questionnaire, and a health assessment at the Clinical Research Facility at Belfast City Hospital.
The assessments, completed by nurses, will include blood pressure readings, brain function (thinking) tests, blood sample collection and an eye examination. Follow-up interviews will be conducted every two years.
Participants in the project will be randomly selected over the next 18 months.
Professor Ian Young, principal investigator of the Nicola Project, said: "Northern Ireland is undergoing an ageing revolution.
"Today there are more people aged under-16 than over-65. By 2037 that will have completely reversed with predictions that there will be 122,000 more over-65s than under-16s. That is an unprecedented change and we need to start planning for it."
Prof Young added: "Nicola will help us change the way we live for the better and those participating in the study will leave a tangible legacy for future generations."
Northern Ireland's Commissioner for Older People Claire Keatinge said that between 1982 and 2062 it is estimated that the proportion of over-50s will increase to 45% of the population.
"That's an unprecedented demographic change that will have major ramifications for society," she said. "Nicola provides an opportunity to ensure that we are prepared to meet the needs of an ageing population."
Over the next few weeks the first potential participants in Nicola will be contacted by letter and then approached by representatives from market research company Ipsos MORI, which Queen's has appointed to conduct the home interviews.
The 8,500 participants will be randomly selected from a database from the Health & Social Care Board. Participation is voluntary.
Junior ministers Jonathan Bell and Jennifer McCann launched the project yesterday.
Five facts about the ageing population in Northern Ireland:
1: By 2027 the number of over-65s will jump by 44%. Numbers of over-85s will double by 2029
2: Over-65s make up 15% of today's population. By 2037 it will be 24%
3: By 2028 there will be more over-65s than under-16s for the first time
4: Today there are 109,000 more under-16s than over-65s. By 2037 there will be 122,000 more over-65s than under-16s
5: Numbers of under- 65s will grow by just 1.5% by 2022