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NHS HIGHLAND: Things we can do for a healthier time in our old age

By Dr Tim Allison

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Supporting those who might be lonely can have a positive impact on their health.
Supporting those who might be lonely can have a positive impact on their health.

Older people have been in the news a lot over recent weeks and months.

Perhaps most prominent among these are the current two front-runners for the election for Presidency of the United States.

Joe Biden, the current president, is 81 years old, and Donald Trump, his opponent and, of course, former president, is 77 years old.

Many other world leaders are also of advanced years, although politicians in this country do tend to be much younger.

We may have some concerns about how older people are able to make big decisions, but there is also a positive side to be seen in this tendency.

People tend to be living for longer now than in the past, and are having more active lives into their old age.

The image of the last of the seven ages of man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It – of someone without teeth, without sight, without taste and without everything is no longer the commonly accepted vision of older people.

However, while life expectancy has been generally rising in recent decades, over the past few years the rise has in fact flattened out and, in some communities, life expectancy has actually fallen over the last decade.

People in more affluent areas tend to live longer than those in poorer areas and this gap has been increasing, especially among men.

It is not just life expectancy that matters, but how healthy we are in the life we have.

People are tending to live in poor health for an average of around 15 years, or much longer in poorer areas.

More people have been living into older age for several underlying reasons.

These include rising living standards, better housing and education as well as standards of modern health care.

The types of illnesses that we have as we get older have changed.

Infectious diseases have declined and conditions of eyes and teeth that plagued the world of Shakespeare can now much more effectively be treated and prevented.

The decline in smoking has certainly had a big effect in reducing the incidence of lung and heart disease in recent years.

But now we have a greater proportion of people with long term conditions, cancers and dementia.

We can live healthily into old age but there are many things that we need to help us do that.

Some of these are determined largely by influences that go beyond the decision making of individuals – such as access to good standard affordable housing and access to healthcare.

Some other things, though, are down to individuals, families and friends.

These include taking up the opportunities to be vaccinated and to be screened to catch illnesses early.

For those with a long-term condition, the more we understand our bodies and our medication, the better we will be able to look after our health ourselves and communicate with healthcare professionals.

One final thing where we all can help is isolation and loneliness.

This can really harm our health and the more contact we have with family, friends and communities, the better we will be at all ages.

n Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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