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What if healthy aging becomes normal? Journal examines trends

Image: School of Public Health

As the world’s population gets older, many nations are wondering how to deal with the dramatic increase in healthy older adults. Two faculty-researchers at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health have edited a special issue of an international journal that looks at this trend.

Improved health care and public health efforts have led to decreased rates of preventable mortality around the world. However, decreased mortality and shrinking fertility rates are bringing about a new phenomenon, known as global aging, where the population of those older than 65 outnumbers those younger than five.

In 2010, there were 524 million older adults worldwide; this number is projected to grow to 1.5 billion by 2050. This demographic shift will present rare situation for health care and preventive health initiatives as the growing healthy aging population becomes a “new normal” for nations around the world.

Regents and Distinguished Professor Marcia G. Ory and Associate Professor Matthew Lee Smith, both of the School of Public Health, served as guest editors of a special issue on global aging in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Ory and Smith, who co-direct the Texas A&M Center for Population Health and Aging, assembled an array of papers about aging and health promotion. Additionally, they co-authored an overview editorial to emphasize some of the basic principles of aging research and preventive care and highlight the complex interactions between aging, health and environmental factors presented in the special issue.

One area of study is the role that social factors play in healthy aging. Several studies have shown the importance of social engagement in a variety of conditions and its role in maintaining healthy cognitive function among older adults. Social support, ranging from friends and family to the community, is another key factor that can affect health and well-being. Further, social factors appear to play a role in performing activities of daily living and even in mortality rates.

Social aspects are not the only subject of research that transcend individual health factors. Several studies examine how the interaction between individuals and their physical environments affects health outcomes. Many older adults prefer to age in place, meaning remain in their homes, rather than move to an assisted living or nursing facility. This sometimes requires additional services and research, which suggests a greater need for expanded physical and mental health services. Additionally, the environment itself is complex and can have positive or negative effects on the health of older adults.

One lifestyle factor found to be profoundly affected by the environment is physical activity. A growing body of research shows that staying physically active is one of the most effective ways for older adults to live longer and healthier lives. Studies in this special issue of the journal highlight this relationship, showing how the distance people live from parks affects physical activity and how neighborhood factors such as safety, the presence of sidewalks and crosswalks and even neighborhood aesthetics can affect how much older adults walk. In addition, studies show that some of these same factors play a role in the probabilities of fall injuries, a common health risk among older adults.

Another area of study is how to better meet the needs of underserved populations to promote healthy lifestyles. For example, fewer health interventions focus on rural populations, and little is known about how best to reach this group, which is disproportionately older and faces unique challenges in access to medical care and transportation. Additionally, some studies examine the roles of factors correlated with foregoing medical care due to costs. Research on these areas aims to improve interventions and health outcomes among vulnerable groups.

Summarizing the intent of this special issue Ory said, “The body of research covered shows how caring for an aging population is a global problem, with studies representing older adults from the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and Asia. These studies also shatter the myth that health promotion efforts would not interest or benefit older adults. A large part of this population is highly motivated to live healthier lives, and research shows that even some of the oldest older adults can benefit from improved nutrition, more physical activity, improved social engagement, better environments and the use of robotics and other new technologies.”

The papers that Ory and Smith compiled for this issue give a broad overview of this growing research field; show the complex interaction between health, aging and the environment; and provide insight into the phenomenon of global aging.

“As this multi-faceted topic of study grows, researchers around the world will continue to find effective and practical ways to promote older adult health, which will solidify healthy aging as the ‘new normal’ among this growing demographic,” Smith said.