Get answers to the big questions on ageing that relate to your health.
What are the issues for women as they age?
I think most people have underestimated the rate at which the community is ageing. They don’t realise that since the mid-1980s, life expectancy has been going up steadily by about 12 months every five or six years.
It would be fabulous if all these extra years were spent in good health, but they’re not in many cases. It used to be ‘how do we prevent a heart attack in a 40 or 50 year old’. Now, it’s ‘how do we delay the onset of disability in older people’.
It’s not all physical disability that’s the issue. It’s not all strokes and heart attacks either. The rates of depression in older people are just amazing.
I guess what I’m saying is that there are physical issues, there are mental issues, but there’s also the brick wall of dementia.
What can you do now to push back the onset of illness in later life?
It’s not an area that has been nearly as well studied as preventing [illness] in the young. You will be able to make a difference by the routine things that prevent heart attacks and strokes, such as keeping blood pressure under control and treating high cholesterol after a heart attack.
What are the biggest health concerns facing older people?
I think the biggest one is dementia. People are living longer, but once you get to between 85 and 90, there’s such a high risk [of developing] dementia. Stroke and heart failure are also important.
What are the messages for women to stay healthy as they age?
Be proactive. Don’t just drift into old age. Your life will change when you retire and your children aren’t around. It is time to develop new interests and make up for things that are no longer going to be part of your life.
Diet is particularly important, so is physical exercise, but so many people’s joints give up and that’s a really big issue. Maintaining good health is a really important thing as is maintaining a network of social connections.
And what about for health professionals?
Manage the heart risk factors. We can largely prevent heart attack and stroke by keeping people’s blood pressure under control and their cholesterol levels down. We can also help by being sensitive to the onset of depression and cognitive decline.
It’s not a matter of prolonging survival; it’s a matter of keeping as many healthy years as we can. That is going to take research because research hasn’t been done in this age group before.
Professor John McNeil AM is the Head of the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University. Professor McNeil is also the co-chief investigating the potential benefits of Asprin in healthy people aged over 70.
Published with permission from Jean Hailes.
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