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Healthcare Experts Debate ‘Healthy Aging’ Options for Older Adults

CONTACT: Jane Lane

BOSTON, December 14, 2009 -

We all share the common bond of aging. Whether caring for aging parents or facing the prospect of our own approaching senior years, society is increasingly focused on how to live longer and better. It’s called ‘healthy aging.’

While we celebrate the advances in healthcare and economic status that make it possible to extend life expectancy far beyond what it was a century ago, the question needs to be asked: at what price? The Massachusetts Health Policy Forum at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, and the Tufts Health Plan Foundation explored the healthy aging initiatives currently in place in this state, the coordination of such programs, as well as the gaps in availability and participation. This morning’s Forum attracted a record audience of more than 400 healthcare policy leaders, providers and advocates.

”With the coming wave of baby boomers, the proportion of older adults is expected to rise to 20 percent of the population by 2030.  Everyone looks at this demographic wave as some type of tsunami.  We take a different view,” said David Abelman, Executive Director of the Tufts Health Plan Foundation. “The wave is not a natural disaster but, instead, it carries a tremendous natural resource in the form of all the knowledge, talent and energy of older citizens in the Commonwealth.  The record-breaking attendance at today's event makes clear that our thought leaders, policy makers and community service providers are all striving to identify the best means of nurturing that natural resource so that our older adults can remain happy, healthy, vibrant and contributing members of our communities and so those who may be more frail or vulnerable among us might have hope for a better future.   We believe that today's program will help to move the Commonwealth towards the best available practices leading to healthy aging for all of us.”

It is widely agreed that the ingredients of healthy aging include common behaviors such as regular physical activity, healthy diet, and social engagement that foster both physical and mental health and social connection.
As Dr. Robert Schreiber, physician-in-chief at Hebrew SeniorLife explained, "Too often chronic conditions associated with aging are dismissed as an inevitable part of growing old. As a result, finding ways to reduce or reverse the incidence of those diseases are not aggressively pursued. Although there is a growing body of evidence that lifestyle interventions, addressing such issues as good nutrition and exercise in the context of well-designed and tested programs, can improve health and even reverse disability among older patients, this science is often not adequately shared among health-care providers. Acknowledging the benefits of these interventions and making these programs widely available to seniors would be a significant step in managing costs associated with these diseases."

According to Heller School Associate Professor Walter Leutz, author of the issue brief, ‘Healthy Aging in the Commonwealth:Pathways to Lifelong Wellness’ which was presented at this morning’s Forum, “There is a strong body of research that connects these behaviors to reduced likelihood of chronic illness, reductions in disease risk factors, less physical and cognitive disability, better mental health and longer lives. While national data show that older adults in Massachusetts do better than the US averages on several criteria, there is always room for improvement, particularly in regard to disparities by class, race and ethnicity.”

Noting that most older adults in the United States suffer from one or more chronic medical conditions, Nancy Whitelaw, director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging, suggested that “truly re-forming our healthcare system will mean responding much more effectively to the needs of the millions of older adults with chronic disease. One proven approach is evidence-based programs, like Stanford University’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Program. These community-based group workshops have helped tens of thousands of people gain the skills and confidence to meet personal goals like exercising more, managing pain, returning to the activities they love, and communicating better with their doctors. They have also saved money by reducing the hospital days and emergency room visits participants need."

With financial assistance from the federal government, there are efforts underway in Massachusetts to replicate successful national programs that have been proven to improve health, reduce disability and/or reduce healthcare costs. These ‘evidence-based programs’ are targeted to help older adults manage their chronic conditions, avoid falls, improve diets, engage in physical activity, combat depression and substance abuse and more.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs, in collaboration with the Department of Public Health, is one of 24 states to receive federal Administration on Aging grants, as well as Atlantic Philanthropies funds through the National Council on Aging. As a result, nearly 2,000 older adults across the state have now participated in classes in chronic disease management, fall prevention and healthy eating.

Massachusetts Secretary of Elder Affairs Ann L. Hartstein, who participated in today’s panel discussion, noted that “Healthy aging begins when we are born.  The Patrick Administration has initiated programs to encourage wise eating and exercise choices; a safe environment; access to regular health care and health management; and civic engagement in our communities - all of which promote good health along the lifespan.   As government agencies and private sector health care institutions we share the responsibility to extend the principles of healthy aging to all segments of our society.”

The state’s Office of Elder Affairs is working closely with the Department of Public Health to implement and test evidence-based programs in chronic disease management, falls prevention, nutrition and other areas. However, healthy aging is more than offering evidence-based programs and fostering behavior change among older adults. According to Prof. Leutz,. “It must also include a strategy that seeks to embed the tenets of healthy aging in agencies’ policies and programming, community planning and land use, professional practice and more.”

A second Massachusetts Health Policy Forum on the topic of healthy aging will be scheduled in 2010 at which time participants will outline a series of recommended steps the state should follow in order to meet the healthcare needs of its expanding population of older adults.