Healthy ageing in focus on World Health Day

The proportion of the population aged 65 and over in the WHO European Region will almost double between 2010 and 2050. Enabling older people to stay healthy and active is key to the future sustainability of health and social policies in the Region.

World Health Day 2012 focuses on ageing and health. Throughout the year, WHO/Europe is celebrating older people’s invaluable contributions to societies and economies, and spotlighting age-related health issues.

A journey through Europe exploring age-friendly policies and active ageing

WHO/Europe has identified five priority interventions that if adequately implemented should make a measurable difference in ensuring older people maintain their independence and avoid disability.

Prevention of falls

About 30% of people over 65 and 50% of those over 80 fall each year. Most falls are preventable, and a combination of raising awareness of the risk factors, exercise programmes, physical therapy and balance retraining can reduce falls and the number of injuries per fall.

“I’m quite worried about falling, because at my age you should be. I’m very careful when going outdoors if it’s slippery. I don’t use a stick to support myself but good, comfortable shoes.”
Eva Kostarova, 73-year-old computer enthusiast and retired switchboard operator, Prague, Czech Republic

WHO has produced recommendations on falls prevention and monitors injury trends for the European Region.

Promotion of physical activity

Physical activity is one of the strongest predictors of healthy ageing. The age-related loss of muscle mass can amount to 30–50% by the age of 80. Physical activity has multiple benefits, not only preventing disease but also lowering the risk of injuries, improving mental health and cognitive function, and enhancing social involvement.

“My biggest problem is walking the two-kilometre dirt road to the vineyard and back again. The walk tires me and I sometimes trip and fall, but I’ve never broken anything, I just bruise myself. I always wish I had some kind of transport, but I stopped driving a car when I turned 70. Whenever I can, I catch a ride with one of the neighbours’ buggies. It’s always more strenuous to walk home in the afternoon than going out there in the morning.”
Giorgi Kistauri, 93-year-old ear, nose and throat specialist and hobby farmer, Georgia

In “Steps to health. A European framework to promote physical activity for health”, WHO/Europe provides guidance on designing and implementing policy that promotes physical activity.

Influenza vaccination of older people and prevention of infectious disease in health care settings

Although usually a mild disease, influenza can cause life-threatening complications or exacerbate underlying conditions. During seasonal influenza epidemics, people aged 65 and older account for over 90% of influenza-related deaths.

“Regularly, every autumn I get the shot against seasonal flu. It is organized by the community and I go regularly in time to get the shot. … It is organized well and people go. It’s very easy, no problems, they inform us when they start and then I go and get it done. And it helps I think.”
Rea Zivkovic, 80-year-old English teacher, Belgrade, Serbia

WHO recommends that people at risk of developing severe disease, including older people, are vaccinated annually. The WHO Regional Office for Europe supports countries in developing more effective vaccines, increasing vaccine uptake among older people and improving the evidence that guides decision-making on introducing the vaccine and monitoring uptake.

Public support for informal care giving with a focus on home care

As populations age, an increasing number of older people with functional limitations need support with their activities of daily living. In all European countries, most care (in terms of hours) is provided informally at home (mostly by women).

“My neighbours, everybody looks after everybody. If they don’t see me one day, they will ask ‘Where is Mrs Führ?’ When there was the flu season, my neighbour visited me with chicken soup. It’s like this here, not everyone has this. We don’t visit each other, we’re not friends, but we look after each other. I can count on them. But you know, it’s a give and take.”
Tina Führ, 79-year-old retired auction house employee, Munich, Germany

“Some of the elderly people I visit are very depressed and I’m almost the only one they talk to. I like helping people, and besides, it’s good exercise for me to run up and down all those staircases.”
Claudia Degano, 63-year-old Meals on Wheels volunteer in Udine, Italy

WHO works with other international organizations to strengthen the evidence base for informal care, such as on public and private home care usage, expenditures and outcomes, trends in informal care giving, and the living and family situations of older people, as well as sharing good practice and facilitating international exchange.

Geriatric and gerontological capacity building among the health and social care workforce

Although substantial progress has been made in geriatric education in many countries over the past 20 years, great challenges remain in filling the gaps in the geriatric knowledge of general practitioners and other health care workers, as well as addressing the shortage of specialists in geriatrics itself.

“The concept of a family doctor is very good. It is good to have one doctor for the whole time, the doctor who knows you and your disease history so also knows what measures should be taken. Now sometimes I know more than the doctor who comes to visit me in an emergency and sees me for the first time. In the local polyclinic the doctors have changed too much recently.”
Albina Timofeevna Slepneva, 79-year-old former head of a chemical laboratory, Nizhnij Novgorod, Russian Federation

WHO/Europe and partners including the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development work together in monitoring the health and social care workforce, as well as supporting the exchange of good practices.

A European action plan on healthy ageing

WHO/Europe plans to integrate these five priority interventions into a European action plan on healthy ageing, to be discussed by countries at the sixty-second session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in September 2012.