Good health adds life to years

Saturday marks World Health Day – celebrating 64 years of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO is part of the United Nations and is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters – as human health concerns really don’t have "borders."

The theme this year is on the health of an aging population. Baby boomers are getting older, as is the general lifespan of humans.

Eighty percent of the population live past the age of 60, and 50 percent live more than 80 years of age, according to Dr. Enrique Vega Garcia, regional advisor, Health Aging, Pan American Health Organization/WHO.

There are many reasons for this increase, but despite our longevity, the number of chronic diseases one may live with during the “golden years” is also on the rise.

Disability Rates Increase With Age
The WHO Report for 2012 states that “older people experience higher rates of disability that reflects an accumulation of health risks throughout their life course.”  Ten out of 15 causes of death in adults aged 60 years or older are ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, stomach cancers, colon/rectal cancers, nephritis and renal disease, liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and breast cancer.  Arguably, all are influenced by dietary intake, smoking and physical activity.

WHO Suggests a Life-Course Approach
The WHO knows there is no magic bullet or quick-fix solution.  Instead they recommend four sound pillars for all nations to work towards:

* Promoting good health and healthy behaviors at all ages to prevent or delay the development of chronic disease.  It may sound like a broken record – eat better, don’t smoke, limit alcohol, increase physical activity and refrain from risky behavior. This is not limited to the US – but across the globe.

* Minimizing the consequences of chronic disease through early detection and quality care (primary, long-term and palliative care).  Early detection saves lives, but the effects of cardiovascular disease has repercussions throughout the body.  It is not enough to wait for a diagnosis to make change, but recognizing the cumulative impact of lifestyle habits and behaviors is important.  It’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.

* Creating physical and social environments that foster the health and participation of older people. Seniors need to live in safe communities – where they can go out and be social – with people of all ages and be able to remain physically active and engaged.  Access to public transportation and intergenerational links can prevent isolation.

* Reinventing aging by changing social attitudes to encourage the participation of older people.  Attitudes and stereotypes about aging individuals must change from negative (too much of a burden, set in their ways) towards positive where seniors can be appreciated for their experience and knowledge.

What Can Be Done
Vega Garcia suggested we “reorganize our investment in health, re-think how we prepare our professionals.”

For example, he explained that “medical students receive six to eight months in mother-child medicine, with less than one week in geriatric medicine, which clearly is insufficient.”

Vega Garcia said that access to care does not guaranty quality of care.

While many countries have access to national health programs – it does not ensure that comprehensive care is the best it can be – or even that it is enough.  Change cannot solely be dependent on government or the medical establishment to be responsible for those factors, which family, friends and the community can impact daily.

Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM is a doctorally trained registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, TV personality and expert consultant in disease prevention, wellness and healthy living. She is the author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great." She hosted TLC's ground-breaking series "Honey We're Killing the Kids!" Become a fan of Felicia on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or visit her website