Healthy ageing: improving quality of life in older age

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Each year, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England publishes a report on a theme of importance to national health and care. This year CMO Professor Chris Whitty has focussed on Health in an Ageing Society. In this blog Andrea Carter, Programme Director for Community and Care Homes, and Dr Carrie Chill, Clinical Director delve into why this is relevant to us all.

People are living longer – ‘a triumph of medicine and public health’ – and contrary to images and references we’re used to seeing and hearing in media and more widely across society, the majority of people enter old age in good health; ill health and disability in older age is not inevitable.

Nine out of ten 80 to 84-year-olds in the UK do not have dementia. UK census data from 2021 shows that around eight in ten people aged over 90 years were not living in care homes.

Professor Whitty stresses the need to reduce negativity about ageing and maintain physical, social and mental activity. He reminds us that adhering to the familiar public health messages of increasing exercise, stopping smoking, moderating diet, and reducing alcohol are among the best ways to delay the onset of disease and reduce the period spent in ill health.

The report poses challenges to medicine, government and wider society to plan to ensure that older age is as healthy, independent and enjoyable as possible, both by reducing disease to delay or minimise disability and frailty, and by changing the environment to allow people to maintain their independence for longer, even with a given level of disability. The increasing concentration of older people living outside cities is highlighted as a particular challenge for policy makers, with the recommendation that NHS, social care services and suitable housing, transport and public spaces are expanded in these areas.

The stark reality that deprivation doesn’t just reduce life expectancy, but ‘healthy life expectancy,’ hits hard in the report, and is a challenge for all ICBs as they consider their statutory duty to address health inequalities.

Quite simply, people living in the poorest parts of England spend the least time in healthy older age.

There has been much support for Professor Whitty’s report from experts in the field, who have welcomed its recognition of these health inequalities, as well as the need to renew focus on mental health improvement interventions and services for older adults.  Notable also is the recommendation that older adults should be the focus of research as they are currently often excluded.

Here at the Health Innovation Network (HIN) South London, many of the report’s themes strike a chord. We have long been championing innovations and supporting programes which can allow  people to maintain their independence for longer, or delay or minimise disability and frailty. We recognise the challenges faced by people living with multiple conditions as they age, and the importance of identifying frailty and providing high quality care to keep people as independent as possible.

We were particularly pleased to see ESCAPE-pain featured on page 236 of the report. This programme supports older adults with management of knee, hip and back pain and is a good example of spread and adoption of evidence-based care driven by health innovation networks (until recently known as Academic Health Science Networks). Starting with just a couple of physiotherapy services running the programme in 2013, with our support at the HIN, and of health innovation networks nationally and current host-organisation Orthopaedic Research UK, the programme has now grown to over 300 locations across the UK and Ireland, and has received numerous accolades. It improves quality of life for the thousands of middle and older age people with chronic joint pain and can be delivered in the leisure sector, which as Professor Whitty notes, has the benefits of relieving pressure on NHS physiotherapy services, as well as giving people additional support for this long-term condition: “Making it easy and attractive for people to exercise throughout their lives is one of the most effective ways of maintaining independence into older age.” ESCAPE-pain makes exercise a reality for thousands of people who have chronic joint pain.

In summary, Health in an ageing society focuses on improving quality of life in older age more than extending lifespan.

Through innovation and improvement, we’re passionate about improving the experience of people as they face the complexities of ageing, so that healthy older life is a reality for more and more citizens. For more information about our current work, do have a look at our web pages.

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If you would like to speak about how we can work together to improve health and care in our ageing society, please do get in touch.

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