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Health promotion focus: report from World Congress on Active Ageing 2016

What were the key learnings from the World Congress on Active Ageing, Melbourne 2016? By Carolyn Loton, Director Juntos Marketing

Are you a researcher, a health promotion professional or simply interested in staying healthy as you age?

Three weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the World Congress on Active Ageing (WCAA), an event held every four years and featuring the latest high quality research in the field of active ageing.

Global experts from backgrounds including physiotherapy, exercise physiology, occupational therapy, dietetics, medical practitioners including gerontologists and science researchers shared a growing body of evidence around the importance of physical activity and its role in a healthier, and a longer life trajectory.  The important role of appropriate nutrition, sleep, social support and cognition were also discussed.

Following are my key outtakes.

It’s never too late to start

  • Keynote speaker Professor Linda Lam, Chinese University of Hong Kong shared insights, based on large scale studies such as the Nun Study, the Harvard Men’s study and the World Alzheimer’s Report 2015, including the role of physical activity in protecting against the manifestation of chronic disease; and the key role of continual activity, education and early linguistic ability in healthy ageing.  Linda shared research suggesting that those who remain cognitively active can delay the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment.  She shared Morris et al’s 2015 paper from Alzheimers and Dementia Journal, linking the MIND diet (Mediterranean diet) with slower cognitive decline.  She concluded by sharing further research which demonstrates that lifestyle affects our cellular biology.
  • Linda Lam’s key messages: intensity of participation, there are no age limits to the benefits of lifestyle changes, and adherence is vital.

World Health Organisation and the global perspective

  • As the Director of the Ageing and Life Course Programme at WHO, Dr John Beard’s global perspective included a view on equitable access to resources.  He showed strong evidence based on longitudinal studies with 50,000 participants, focusing on the importance of physical activity and a supportive social environment for those aged between 45 and 65 years, as predictors of a significantly longer and healthier life trajectory.
  • 2020 – 2030 will be the WHO’s decade of better ageing, and will include a program to combat ageism.  In preparation, over the next 5 years the WHO will focus on filling knowledge gaps.  They plan to undertake a global baseline survey in 2019.
  • How should we measure healthy life expectancy?  Perhaps we should adopt the EU’s approach, focusing on functional ability and asking “can you do the things that are important to you?”

Exercise to prevent falls in older adults: updated systematic review and meta-analysis

  • Professor Cathie Sherrington shared this soon to be published updated systematic review and meta-analysis
  • The updated research showed stronger links between balance challenging activity, strength training and reduction in risk of falling
  • Updated recommendations include that exercise programs should safely provide high level challenge to balance, and that older people should include 3+ hours of exercise each week

Exercise as medicine

  • Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh, University of Sydney’s strong message was that ‘exercise is medicine and can be as effective as pharmaceutical solutions’
  • Maria highlighted the importance of strength training and its role in addressing chronic disease and mental health challenges, tempered by “first do no harm”

The role that Meals on Wheels may play in addressing malnutrition in older people

  • Natalie Luscombe-Marsh’s study in South Australia demonstrated that Meals on Wheels can play an important role in addressing malnutrition
  • Her research focused on older people living in the community, and showed that 8% were malnourished and a further 15-40% were at risk.  Natalie highlighted the links between loss of weight, subsequent increased risk of sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass and strength) and premature admissions to residential aged care facilities, and demonstrated improved health outcomes and reduced length of hospital stays with supplemented nutrition.

Tailored strength and balance exercise programs in residential care can reduce the risk of falls

  •  Jennie Hewitt’s recently completed research has shown that high level balance challenging exercise, combined with strength training, has a demonstrable impact on risk of falls in residential care.  Jennie’s work supports the role of tailored programs run in a group setting.
  • This important work suggests that introducing health rebates for group activities would be an extremely worthwhile.

How to communicate health messages effectively: what do older people value?

  • Our own paper, written conjunction with Cathie Sherrington and Anne Tiedemann of The George Institute of Global Health, reported on our qualitative research project, looking at effective communication of health messages.
  • This will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.  If you are interested in the meantime, please get in touch directly as we are very happy to share these results.

And some final thoughts

  • Doing something is winning (Dave Alred)
  • The strong health benefits of volunteering
  • Ageing is everyone’s business
  • Promoting walkability
  • Citizen science: mobilising citizens to record and address health issues in the community (Dr Abby King, Stanford University)
  • Looking forward to the next WCAA in 4 years time

Thanks to Stuart Biddle and the Victoria University team for developing and curating a really well planned and interesting program.

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