Embracing your health at old-age, lessons from abroad
By World Healthcare Journal-
Perhaps it is time to rethink our approach to old age and the way we see elderly people in our society?
Ageing is a lifelong process that effects all. Even though no one is spared the effects of its effects, it is important to understanding the impacts of ageing through a gendered lens. The importance of this approach is highlgithed in the WHO’s 2007 report: Women, Ageing and Health, which found that women outnumber men in older age groups with the number of women age 60 and over set to increase from about 336 million in 2000 to just over one billion by 2050. With women in the UK living an average of four years longer than their male counterparts, a women-specific perspective within health policy is needed to ensure they can age with dignity.
A reoccurring theme during Public Policy Projects ‘International Women’s Day 2021: Challenging Health Inequalities’ Gender, Ageing and Health panel was the compounding impacts of life-long gendered social inequalities negatively impacting quality-of-life in old-age. The WHO state in their top 10 issues for women’s health that, having often worked in the home, older women may have fewer pensions and benefits, less access to health care and social services than their male counterparts. This, the findings sate, is combined with “the greater risk of poverty with other conditions of old age, like dementia, and older women also have a higher risk of abuse and generally, poor health. ”
There is no quick-fix or magic pill to guarantee a healthy and long life and impactful changes in policy and healthcare can often seem distant and unattainable. NHS England state that “it is essential that older people are supported to remain as healthy and independent as possible for as long as possible and they receive the highest quality care when they need it. ” However, this may simply reinforce a sentiment of ‘too little, too late’. It is important that in the later years of life, women can take ownership of their health and not be reduced to terms such as ‘frail’.
If ageing is increasing pressure upon health systems globally, solutions must be found at an international level. What lessons can be learned from around the world, particularly from nations which boast high centenarian populations? What – if anything - can be done to reduce the compounding impact of life-long gendered social inequalities which more greatly impact women?
The Sardinian lifestyle
In the small island of Sardinia, longevity of life is common, with much of its population living to, if not over, 100; almost 20 years longer than in the UK. Scientists have proven that genetics only amounts for around 20 per cent of life expectancy, with the remaining 80 per cent falling within the control of the individual.
While in the UK, the elderly are often categorised as a ‘burden’ upon society, in Sardinia they are celebrated and take a more active role. Grandparents can and do provide childcare and financial support, potentially giving the “overall population a life expectancy bump”. This central societal position helps maintain a strong system of support around the older population, boosting their social lives. This results in reduced levels of stress, lowering one’s risk of ailements such as cardiovascular disease.
Diet forms another of the pillars of longevity. The traditional Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) has long been recognised as playing a vital role in bettering the quality and length of life of its populations. A diet made-up of moderate consumptions of fish, red wine, olive oil, goat’s milk is indicative of reducing inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and dementia. Staples of a British diet such as red meat, confectionery, and processed foods are by comparison consumed infrequently in many mars of the Mediterranean.
If the Sardinians have a ‘magic pill’ for ageing, it is routine, with healthy customs such as walking embedded into their day to day. In a society which is undoubtably riddled with the same discourses surrounding gender inequalities, the compounding effects of such disadvantages play a far smaller and less gendered role.
Japan’s “super-aged” society
Even though ageing societies are becoming a common global phenomenon, the Japanese appear to have been early in cracking the secret to healthier ageing. Following a similar trend of routine to the Sardinians, in Japan, the idea of meiwaku, or “being a nuisance” is introduced from a very young age, instilling widespread fear of being regarded as a ‘burden’ upon society in the later years of life. With almost 29 per cent of the population being 65 or older, Japan is also home to a record 80,000 centenarians; thus placing ageing at the heart of societal thinking.
Starting a hobby, such as swimming, dancing and sewing has proven to maintain social engagement. Occupying one’s time with physical and social activities, deters from the risk of becoming meiwaku. Furthermore, a healthy diet, access to clean water, a hygiene-conscious culture, and an active lifestyle, all play a key role in explaining the populations’ longevity.
In contrast to the UK, a European Parliament briefing credited “a low level of income inequality” as play a vital part in ensuring both sexes live a long and healthy life. Combined with positive daily habits, shared by Sardinia, the long-term repercussions of gendered inequalities fail to burden the health of the Japanese population with the same vigour it does that of the UK.
Narratives around ageing evidently play a key role in ensuring a healthy ageing population. Where the elderly are regarded as active contributors to society, their life expectancy increases. Immediate policy change is difficult; however, it should be noted on the UK’s Government agenda that the narratives surrounding ageing must change. Reducing someone to the term ‘frail’ reduces their scope to contribute to society. Embracing ageing throughout life, adopting health-conscious habits, and changing the narratives which cement the idea that old equals burden, the compounding impact of gendered health inequalities upon old age will be somewhat alleviated.
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