Academic journal article Australian Health Review

Promoting the Health of Older Australians: Program Options, Priorities and Research

Academic journal article Australian Health Review

Promoting the Health of Older Australians: Program Options, Priorities and Research

Article excerpt


Relatively little emphasis has been placed on identifying health promotion research and program priorities for the older age group. A one-day conference culminating in an interactive session was organised to engage health service professionals in a process to identify such priorities in Western Australia. Physical activity, social isolation, mental health and medications were deemed issues warranting more attention by both health promotion research and health promotion intervention programs. Additional consultation with representatives of the target population is recommended to further refine the priorities.

Background to the project

Intervention programs and health promotion research have traditionally focussed on children and youth and to some extent on young adults. It is only in recent years that Australia and other high-income countries have given attention to setting priorities for health promotion programs and health promotion research with respect to seniors.

As part of the process in Western Australia, a daylong conference was held for health professionals working with seniors and/or interested in their health. This involved a review of health issues for seniors and the presentation of case studies covering services and risk factors, culminating in an interactive process to identify priorities for both more health promotion programs and health promotion research in relation to seniors. This paper summarises the process that was undertaken and discusses the results in relation to the national health priorities.

The ageing population and the need for health promotion

The increasing size of the ageing population raises social and public health concerns. Today about 10% of the world's population is 60 years of age or older, which is expected to increase to 20% by 2050 (Health Department of Western Australia 2001). In Australia the 2001 census recorded the proportion of people aged 65 years and over as 12.6% (2.4 million). This group is estimated to comprise 25% of the population within 50 years (AIHW 2002a).

Age is generally associated with declining health status, with older Australians contributing more to health costs per capita than other groups. Seniors accounted for 35% of the total health expenditure and 48% of patient days in hospital in 2000-2001 (AIHW 2002a). There is a growing literature on the predicted economic impacts of this group and their demands for housing and health care (e.g. Dychtwald 1999). In contrast, there is evidence that older persons, who are permitted to play a role, feel needed and continue to be active, will retain their health and capability far longer than those who are deprived of these possibilities and feel content or obliged to withdraw (Fletcher, Breeze and Walters 1999; Maddox 1987). Nevertheless, many societies, including Australia, may be ill prepared to handle the conditions associated with a rapidly aging population (Foran and Poldy 2002; Mitka 2002).

Many of the health problems and disabilities that occur in old age often develop from earlier behaviours and experiences. After peaking in early adulthood, functional capacity typically declines, due largely to such factors as physical inactivity, inappropriate alcohol and drug use, tobacco use, and inappropriate nutrition (Kalache and Keller 1999). This provides a strong rationale for health promotion to focus on people when they are young. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of evidence that promoting health amongst older age groups can also significantly influence health gain and compress morbidity and mortality (Fletcher, Breeze and Walters 1999). Health promotion aimed at increasing the health status at seniors in Australia should therefore be given increasing importance.

Increased interest in the health of seniors at an international level is evidenced by the publication of reports by the World Health Organisation and a range of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia (AIHW 2002a; National Institute on Ageing 2001; Victor and Howse 2000; WHO 2002a; WHO 2002b). …

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