From vaccinations to diet practices, older Australians could be doing more to safeguard their health. This is the message from several health organisations and research institutions this week, including the Cancer Council and Australian National University (ANU).
Australians are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. However, according to Lung Foundation Australia member Associate Professor Lucy Morgan, this won’t make them immune to some very serious health risks. This is particularly relevant for older Australians, who may not realise that their age alone makes them more vulnerable to illnesses such as pneumococcal pneumonia, which can be passed on to grandchildren.
“We are seeing a rise of a generation of healthy, fit and fabulous Australians in their mid-60s who love to travel and care for their grandchildren. They don't realise that developing pneumococcal pneumonia could change all of that,” said Professor Morgan.
Being vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia could add five years to the lives of older Australian aged between 65 and 74. Despite repeated campaigns to raise awareness, however, Professor Morgan said the vaccination rate remains low, with two-thirds of older Australians going without vaccinations and 40 per cent unaware that a vaccination is available.
But older Australians aren’t just falling short of vaccination expectations. Professor Emily Banks, lead researcher of a study at ANU, said that data from an Australian Bureau of Statistics national survey reveals that one in five Aussies (20 per cent) aged 45–74 are at high risk of heart attack or stroke within five years.
Additionally, the research findings reveal that almost 1 million Aussies aren’t receiving the currently recommended medicines that would lower blood pressure and cholesterol and “more than halve the chances of having a heart attack or stroke in the future”.
The Heart Foundation’s Chief Medical Advisor Professor Garry Jennings called the findings “a wake-up call” for the community, health organisations and the government. Older Australians are being asked to implement lifestyle and dietary changes and undergo routine risk assessments.
“It’s really important that Australians aged 45 years and older, or 35 if Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, see their doctor for a cardiovascular risk assessment,” said Professor Jennings.
According to an article published by the ANU, “Risk factors include a person's age and sex, whether they smoke, their blood pressure, the balance of good and bad cholesterol in their blood, whether or not they have diabetes and their level of kidney function.”
If all this isn’t enough, a 2014–2015 Victorian Population Health survey found that a mere five per cent of Victorians were meeting the Australian Dietary Guidelines’ suggestion of two serves of fruit and five serves of veggies per day.
“An estimated 1293 cases of bowel cancer would be prevented if Australians were having enough fruit and vegetables and, overall four per cent of cancers would be prevented if people had enough fruit and vegetables,” said the Cancer Council’s dietician Alison Ginn.
Between criticism of gluten-free diets, the carcinogenic danger of processed meat and controversy about a sugar tax, Australians receive an overabundance of diet and health advice. There is so much (sometimes conflicting) advice that making a judgement call on what will work for you is nearly impossible. Everything you eat will give you cancer and 500 hours of exercise every week just isn’t enough. What do you know about health risks? How can you know what’s good for you?
I believe that most people do actually know what’s good for them. You’ve made it to the age you are now, so surely you know a thing or two about what your body needs? Five per cent of Victorians are following the Australian Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation of two serves of fruit and five serves of veggies per day. I’ll wager that 95 per cent of you reading this experienced guilt in some form or another. But it’s important to remember that with any health advice you receive, you’re only seeing part of the story.
Meet Sally, 59 years old. She gets by eating the recommended two pieces of fruit per day, but she tends to only have three serves of vegies. Still, she’ll take the dog for a walk after work every day and would choose tea over fruit juice. She also cooks dinner at home every night. Considering everything, I still reckon Sally’s doing alright.
Yes, the media feeds us a lot of changing advice about how to manage our health and it can be overwhelming. But the advice we should be listening to is quite simple. It remains the same, despite whatever new health warning or ‘revelation’ spills out from the media.
You already know what this advice is. You’ve heard it a million times before. But let me say it one more time: Eat healthily. Exercise. Drink water. Sleep. Wake up. Repeat.
As a caveat, when it comes to safeguarding your health against specific illnesses, I’d advise following the advice from the relevant health bodies. For example, you can find out more about the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination at the Lung Foundation.
What do you think? Are we receiving too many mixed messages about what is healthy and unhealthy? Do you feel you’re being given too little credit for being able to manage your own health? What have you found works best for you when trying to stay fit and healthy?
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