Naval Hospital Jacksonville diabetes education nurse Nyve Tinajero checks a patient’s foot in the hospital’s diabetes center, in this undated photo. The World Health Organization lists diabetes as one of the health conditions older people are likely to have. (Photo: Michelle Pereira)
COMMON conditions in older age include hearing loss; cataracts and refractive errors; back and neck pain and osteoarthritis; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; diabetes; depression and dementia. As people age, they are more likely to experience several conditions at the same time.
Older age is also characterized by the emergence of several complex health conditions commonly called geriatric syndromes. They are often the consequence of multiple underlying factors and include frailty, urinary incontinence, falls, delirium and pressure ulcers.
Factors influencing healthy aging
A longer life brings with it opportunities, not only for older people and their families, but also for societies as a whole. Additional years provide the chance to pursue new activities such as further education, a new career or a long-neglected passion. Older people also contribute in many ways to their families and communities. Yet the extent of these opportunities and contributions depends heavily on one factor: health.
Evidence suggests that the proportion of life in good health has remained broadly constant, implying that the additional years are in poor health. If people can experience these extra years of life in good health and if they live in a supportive environment, their ability to do the things they value will be little different from that of a younger person. If these added years are dominated by declines in physical and mental capacity, the implications for older people and for society are more negative.
Although some of the variations in older people’s health are genetic, most is due to people’s physical and social environments – including their homes, neighborhoods, and communities, as well as their personal characteristics – such as their sex, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. The environments that people live in as children – or even as developing fetuses – combined with their personal characteristics, have long-term effects on how they age.
Physical and social environments can affect health directly or through barriers or incentives that affect opportunities, decisions and health behaviour. Maintaining healthy behaviors throughout life, particularly eating a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity and refraining from tobacco use, all contributing to reducing the risk of non-communicable diseases, improving physical and mental capacity and delaying care dependency.
Supportive physical and social environments also enable people to do what is important to them, despite losses in capacity. The availability of safe and accessible public buildings and transport, and places that are easy to walk around, are examples of supportive environments. In developing a public-health response to aging, it is important not just to consider individual and environmental approaches that ameliorate the losses associated with older age, but also those that may reinforce recovery, adaptation and psychosocial growth.
The United Nations General Assembly declared 2021-2030 the Decade of Healthy Aging and asked WHO to lead the implementation. The Decade of Healthy Aging is a global collaboration bringing together governments, civil society, international agencies, professionals, academia, the media and the private sector for 10 years of concerted, catalytic and collaborative action to foster longer and healthier lives.
The Decade builds on the WHO Global Strategy and Action Plan and the United Nations Madrid International Plan of Action on Aging and supports the realization of the United Nations Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Decade of Healthy Aging (2021-2030) seeks to reduce health inequities and improve the lives of older people, their families and communities through collective action in four areas: changing how we think, feel and act towards age and ageism; developing communities in ways that foster the abilities of older people; delivering person-centred integrated care and primary health services responsive to older people; and providing older people who need it with access to quality long-term care.