A Healthy Environment for Older Adults: The Aging Initiative of the Environmental Protection Agency

Article excerpt

How does the environment affect the health of elders?

The importance of the well-being of the environment to the well-being of the community has been understood for ages. More recently, scientists and public health professionals have taken a closer look at the impact the environment has on the health of older adults and the effects an aging society might have on the environment. The air we breathe and the water we drink are public natural resources on which everyone depends for a healthy life. As the population ages, it may be even more important to understand how environmental hazards affect those of us with chronic conditions, compromised immune systems, and diminished capacity to respond to these threats. It is in the public's interest and the interest of the most susceptible in our population, the young and the old, to protect the environment and our public natural resources. In other words, by protecting the environment we protect our health.

The Aging Initiative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sharpened the agency's focus on aging and environmental health. The initiative, formally announced in November 2002 by the then-EPA administrator Christie Whitman at a meeting with representatives of the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, has generated considerable interest within the EPA and the aging network.

The Aging Initiative has four objectives:

1. To conduct research to better understand environmental health hazards that affect older people.

2. To translate research findings into practical public health prevention strategies.

3. To create tools to address the impact of a rapidly growing aging population on the environment.

4. To provide opportunities for older adults to become environmental stewards in their communities.

The Aging Initiative was shaped by public input. During the spring of 2003, the EPA held six public meetings to ensure that older adults, gerontologists, public health officials, and interested citizens could contribute to the National Agenda for the Environment and the Aging, the foundation for the Aging Initiative. Thanks to the strong support of local area agencies on aging, schools of public health, and state and local health, aging, and environmental officials, these listening sessions were a success. The EPA received wise counsel, informed judgment, critical questions, and spirited suggestions from the field to help develop a responsive and effective program.

Today the Aging Initiative is the basis of new alliances among environmental toxicologists, gerontologists, aging organizations, and public health experts in an effort to improve and protect environmental health and safeguard the environment. As we understand how environmental hazards can affect our health, we will be better able to live healthy lives. The public and private sectors will need to collaborate on outreach efforts and educational strategies to ensure that health professionals and the public understand what science has learned about the health effects of toxicants in the soil, air, and water, and develop strategies to reduce and avoid exposure. Older adults, hcalthcare professionals, public health practitioners, formal and informal caregivers, and professionals in the field of aging all have important roles to play in protecting the health of susceptible populations while improving environmental health.

The so-called demographic imperative, that is, the aging of the population, provides ample reason to step up efforts to prevent exacerbations of chronic conditions from toxicants and reduce the costs associated with treating these conditions among the nation's elders.

Older adults vary widely in their susceptibility and exposure to emironmcnr.il hazards. Most older adults remain healthy, but all too many elders are burdened with chronic illnesses. As people age, they accumulate environmental and occupational toxicants such as lead, mercury, and the products of toxic DDT and PCBS that can persist in the human body for long periods of rime. …