World Health Day April 7 Focuses on Healthy Aging

World Health Day 2012 Focuses on Healthy Aging (image from World Health Organization)April 7, 2012 is World Health Day, an annual event sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations. The theme of this year’s event is “Ageing and health: Good health adds life to years.”

“The focus is how good health throughout life can help older men and women lead full and productive lives and be a resource for their families and communities. Ageing concerns each and every one of us – whether young or old, male or female, rich or poor – no matter where we live,” the WHO said.

As part of the event, the WHO has provided a comprehensive brief entitled, Good Health Adds Life to Years – Global Brief for World Health Day 2012, which provides international data on aging and health and wellness issues associated with aging.

World Health Day is celebrated on April 7 of each year to mark the anniversary of the founding of WHO in 1948. As explained by the WHO, “Each year a theme is selected for World Health Day that highlights a priority area of concern for WHO. World Health Day is a global campaign, inviting everyone – from global leaders to the public in all countries – to focus on a single health challenge with global impact. Focusing on new and emerging health issues, World Health Day provides an opportunity to start collective action to protect people’s health and well-being.”

Data on Aging and Health

The Global brief for World Health Day 2012 published by the WHO as part of World Health Day 2012, “takes a fresh look at health data on ageing to help us better understand the needs of older people,” the WHO states on its website. The report includes sections on: “key points, the demographics of ageing, and the epidemiology of population ageing.”

The document also outlines four key actions that individuals and governments can take now for healthier and more active aging.

According to the brief, almost all countries of the world, especially developed countries, are experiencing a quite dramatic increase in the proportion of their populations aged 60 or over. “In the middle of the 20th century there were just 14 million people on the whole planed aged 80 years or older. By 2050, there will be 100 million living in China alone, and 400 million people in this age group worldwide,” the brief states.

The aging of the population relates to socioeconomic development, the brief explains:

“In many ways, population ageing can be viewed as a direct consequence of socioeconomic development. … As living conditions improve and access to health care increases, mortality during childhood and childbirth falls. This is typically followed by falling birth rates as families become aware of the greater likelihood that their children will survive, and as women gain more control over their fertility. The lag between falling mortality and falling fertility creates a temporary increase in the proportion of children in the population. As this generation moves into traditional working ages, it reinforces economic growth. But this population bulge eventually moves into older age and, if fertility rates remain low, the proportion of older people in the population increases. This trend is accelerated by increasing survival in older ages. … This will lead to greater proportions of people aged more than 80 years in the population.”

Other key points made in the WHO brief include:

  • “While ageing presents challenges to society, it also creates many opportunities. Population ageing will challenge society by increasing demand for acute and primary health care, straining pension and social security systems and increasing need for long-term and social care. But older people also make important contributions as family members, volunteers and as active participants in the workforce. They are a significant social and economic resource, and longer life expectancy means a greater opportunity to contribute to society. Where the balance lies between these challenges and opportunities will be determined by how society responds.
  • Fostering good health in older age is central to the global response to population ageing. Poor health, negative stereotypes and barriers to participation all currently marginalize older people, undermine their contribution to society and increase the costs of population ageing. Investing in health lessens the disease burden, helps prevent isolation and has broader benefits for society by maintaining the independence and productivity of older people.
  • Poor health in older age is not just a burden for the individual but also for their families and for society as a whole. The poorer the family or the setting, the greater the potential impact. Loss of good health can mean that an older person who was previously a family resource may no longer be able to contribute and may, instead, require significant support. The cost of their health care can impoverish the whole family. This burden is spread inequitably. Those with the least resources, or who live in the poorest areas, are most at risk.
  • The main health challenges for older people are noncommunicable [chronic] diseases. The impact of these conditions is two to three times greater for older people in low- and middle-income countries than for people in high-income countries. Even in the poorest countries, the greatest health burdens for older people come from diseases such as heart disease, stroke, visual impairment, hearing loss and dementia. Older people often experience several of these health problems at the same time.
  • Current health systems, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, are poorly designed to meet the chronic care needs that arise from this complex burden of disease. For example, while ischaemic heart disease and stroke are the biggest causes of years of life lost, and high blood pressure is a key treatable risk factor for these diseases, only between 4 and 14% of older people in a recent large study in low- and middle-income countries were receiving effective antihypertensive treatment. Instead of treating younger populations with single curative interventions, health systems will need to adapt to ensure high quality, safe care, beyond the hospital setting, for older populations who often have several chronic diseases and disabilities.
  • Ageing is interrelated with other major global trends such as urbanization, technological change and globalization. Just as migration and urbanization are changing social structures and relationships, longer life expectancy will influence the way people live and plan their lives. Approaches based on 20th century social models are unlikely to be effective in this rapidly changing environment.
  • Increasing longevity may even lead us to rethink the way we view “old” itself. With people living 10 or 20 years longer, a range of life options that would only rarely have been achievable in the past become possible.”

Focus on Healthy Aging: Solutions to the Challenges of an Aging Population

“There is no simple “magic bullet” solution to the challenges of population ageing, but there are concrete actions that governments and societies can take now,” according to the WHO.

Here is the four-point “life-course approach to healthy and active ageing” recommended by the WHO:

  • “Promoting good health and healthy behaviours at all ages to prevent or delay the development of chronic disease. Being physically active, eating a healthy diet, avoiding the harmful use of alcohol and not smoking or using tobacco products can all reduce the risk of chronic disease in older age. These behaviours need to start in early life and continue into older age.
  • Minimizing the consequences of chronic disease through early detection and quality care (primary, long-term and palliative care). While we can reduce the risk of chronic disease through a healthy lifestyle, many people will still develop health problems in older age. We need to detect metabolic changes such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high cholesterol early and manage them effectively. But we also need to address the needs of people who already have chronic disease, care for those who can no longer look after themselves and ensure that everyone can die with dignity.
  • Creating physical and social environments that foster the health and participation of older people. Social determinants not only influence the health behaviours of people across the life course, they are also an important factor in whether older people can continue to participate. It is therefore important to create physical and social environments that are “age-friendly” and foster the health and participation of older people.
  • Reinventing ageing – changing social attitudes to encourage the participation of older people. Many current attitudes to ageing were developed during the 20th century when there were far fewer older people and when social patterns were very different. These patterns of thinking can limit our capacity to identify the real challenges, and to seize the opportunities, of population ageing in the 21st century. We need to develop new models of ageing that will help us create the future society in which we want to live.”

The WHO brief especially emphasizes the need to focus on prevention and wellness of chronic diseases, the largest cause of illness and death among older people. It advocates simple lifestyle changes as the most effective and cost-efficient means to accomplish reduction in chronic diseases:

“Noncommunicable diseases are the overwhelming challenge, and all countries need to build health systems that can prevent and control these disorders. The evidence for how to do this is very strong.

Since noncommunicable disease in older age is often the consequence of behaviours or exposures earlier in life, strategies need to be put in place that reduce these risks across the life course. Being physically active, eating a healthy diet, avoiding the harmful use of alcohol and not smoking or using tobacco products can all reduce the risk of chronic disease in older age. WHO has identified a set of evidence-based “best buy” interventions for tackling noncommunicable diseases that are not only highly cost-effective, but also feasible and appropriate to implement within the constraints of low- and middle-income health systems. These include preventive strategies such as taxes on tobacco and alcohol, smoke-free workplaces and public places, reduced salt intake in food and increasing public awareness on diet and physical activity.”

Changing Attitudes Toward Aging and Promotion of Healthy Aging

Commemorating World Health Day and its focus on healthy aging this year, The Lancet, a noted medical journal in the UK, has published a letter advocating that “old attitudes to ageing [must] be transformed” and that “attention must be shifted to dealing with non-communicable diseases in the elderly, which represent by far the largest burden of disease in this age group.”

The letter by Dr. Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, School of International Development, University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich, UK, and colleagues, appears in the April 4 online issue of The Lancet.

The authors say: “Depictions of older people remain stereotyped and generalised, distorting public opinion and skewing policy debates. For example, the use of economic dependency ratios, one of the commonest measures of ageing, assumes that anyone aged 65 years or older is unproductive. Similarly, the use of disability-adjusted life years to capture the health of a population explicitly views older people as a social and economic burden. Yet many older people continue to make substantial social, economic, and cultural contributions, which can be enhanced by measures that improve their health and functional status.”

Furthermore, they point out that health spending and health-service use are more closely associated with how close one is to death than with chronological age. They add: “Indeed, it is often the case that less is spent on older people than on younger people with similar conditions.”

In a press release about the letter, The Lancet highlighted the authors findings that “substantial improvements in status can be achieved with relatively cheap and simple interventions such as the effective management of hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol, and the promotion of healthy lifestyles, in particular regular physical activity.”

“Yet in most countries these interventions are not available to large sections of adult populations,” the authors state. “The failure of national governments and international agencies to prioritise these cheap and effective treatments represents a missed opportunity to reduce mortality, illness, and disability on an unprecedented scale,” they opine.

“Although the non-communicable disease (NCD) agenda has gathered some momentum in recent years, international health spending in low-income and middle-income countries remains heavily focused on infectious diseases and mother and child health.”

“If we do not challenge existing policy paradigms and the social attitudes that underpin them, population ageing might indeed lead to a crisis in the provision of health and welfare services. Instead, we should see it as a welcome opportunity to challenge outdated public perceptions, political priorities, and policy models,” the authors conclude.

A linked Lancet Editorial says that 5 years from now, for the first time in history, the number of people aged 65 years and older will outnumber children younger than 5 years.

In its press release, The Lancet announces that later this year, it will publish a Series on ageing. “We hope that this Series, together with WHO’s renewed commitments, will help create a new movement for healthy ageing for all,” The Lancet states.

More Information

For inspiring examples of healthy aging, see the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on:

Examples of Healthy Aging: Stories of Inspiring Seniors.

For information on wellness, healthy lifestyle, prevention of diseases, and wellness, See also the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:

See also the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on 14 different Medical Conditions Commonly Faced by Seniors, including Prevention and other resource pages for each of these 14 conditions on:

  • What is it; Causes;
  • Symptoms & Diagnosis;
  • Prevention;
  • Treatments; and
  • Caregiving.

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Copyright © 2012 Care-Help LLC, publisher of HelpingYouCare™.

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