The National Strategy for an Ageing Australia recognises the importance of nutrition and physical activity as two key determinants of healthy ageing.
So if you are a working carer supporting a person who is aged, getting as much correct information as possible to keep them healthy and well is crucial.
The healthier they are, the better their life – and yours – will be.
There is not a great deal of research going on in Australia about ageing well, but some of the most widely quoted is coming out of Southern Cross University (SCU).
Ageing researchers at SCU, Dr Sonya Brownie, and Dr Rosanne Coutts, from the School of Health and Human Sciences, have a wealth of knowledge they want to share on ageing well.
Dr Coutts said that improvements in health care, living standards, social support systems and nutritional status had resulted in more Australians living to an old age.
“Together, these changes have extended human life expectancy and led to the realisation that achieving longevity in today’s world is an attainable goal for an increasing number of people,” she told Work ‘n’ Care.
“Promoting the concept of healthy ageing has arisen from an aspiration to match improvements in life expectancy with quality of life for the older person.
“What we know is that people who are encouraged and supported to attain and maintain a high level of physical activity, and good social and mental function, experience a reduction in the incidence and impact of preventable disease, which delays the onset of age-related conditions.
“Clearly, these benefits are far ranging and will positively impact expenditure on aged care, the provision of services for this age group, and enhance active participation in life for the older person.
“Physical inactivity is now recognised as a key health issue, and is the second most important risk factor, after tobacco, that contributes to the burden of disease, morbidity and mortality in Australia.”
Dr Coutts said physical inactivity accounts for an estimated 8,000 deaths per year in Australia, and costs the health system at least $400 million in direct health care costs. Studies have shown that those most at risk of insufficient physical activity are women, older adults, socially disadvantaged people and individuals from non-English speaking backgrounds.
It is estimated that approximately half the decline in function that occurs with ageing is the result of a decline in skeletal muscle (accelerated by physical inactivity and disuse of muscle) rather than illness.
Lean body mass (muscle) declines progressively throughout adult life and is associated with a reduction in performance, loss of strength, decreased protein reserves, increased disability, and increased risk of falls and injury.
“What we know is that the maintenance of a physically active lifestyle arrests or significantly delays age-related changes in cardiovascular, respiratory and musculoskeletal function,” Dr Coutts said.
Dr Brownie said that it was never too late to implement healthy lifestyle behaviour. “Even changes made later in life can improve health and life chances,” she said.
“Another factor to consider in achieving healthy ageing is good nutrition. Older people are more vulnerable to inadequate nutrition than younger adults and have a higher risk of nutritional deficiencies.
“Malnutrition is a common problem in the older population. It can arise from a variety of physiological, pathological, and social factors, such as age-related changes in smell and taste, concurrent medical illness, and isolation. Malnutrition has serious adverse consequences, including poorer overall health, impaired immune function and disability.
“Poor nutritional status is associated with increased demands on health services, lengthier hospital stays and is recognised as an important predictor of morbidity and mortality.”
Dr Coutts and Dr Brownie are currently undertaking further studies into ageing which they hope will assist efforts to better understand how communities can make ‘healthy choices easy choices’ in relation to nutrition and physical activity for older people.
Elsewhere in this issue of Work ‘n’ Care we look at the issue of planning for your own retirement and aged care needs, in an interview with Professor Colleen Cartwright, who last month gave the keynote address at the Australian Association of Gerontology Conference in Ballina.
Professor Cartwright heads Aged Services Learning and Research Collaboration at Southern Cross University.