Healthy Aging: Reflecting on the State of Science and Policy

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By Yen Lin, MPH, Public Health Advisor, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

This summer, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) co-hosted HHS’s first Healthy Aging Summit with the American College of Preventive Medicine. The Summit explored the state-of-the-science, policy, research, and care for older Americans across multiple sectors including public health, healthcare, academia, transportation, housing, and environmental planning. Participants heard from experts in these sectors on subjects ranging from the latest in cognitive aging research to international innovations that can be used here in the United States. September is Healthy Aging Month and an ideal time to reflect on what we learned at the Summit and the implications for public health policy.

Important Themes at the Healthy Aging Summit

ODPHP brings together public health experts to develop national health goals and objectives, coordinate the translation of science into policy, and develop tools for a healthier nation. As such, many of the sessions at the Summit aligned with these efforts. Presenters outlined several examples of programs that were designed to increase the uptake of preventive services and encourage healthy choices such as increased physical activity to promote health. Several sessions featured Healthy People 2020’s social determinants of health model, and emphasized “upstream” influences on healthy aging ranging from access to healthy meals and age-appropriate exercise programs to strong social and support networks. Lastly, a number of sessions focused cognitive aging research, specifically on Alzheimer’s Disease, and highlighted information about the latest research findings exploring the causes of Alzheimer’s, innovative treatment options, and new ideas about prevention.

We started out the Summit by featuring interviews with older adults who shared their insights into activities that have helped them to age well, such as engaging in regular physical activity and social interactions, good nutrition, and learning new skills to keep their minds sharp. One of the interviewees, Dr. Bernice Harper, was in attendance at the Summit and received a resounding round of applause for 37 years of service at the Health Care Financing Administration, now known as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Vibrant and active, Dr. Harper is indeed “92 years young.”

Identifying Healthy Aging Priorities and Mobilizing Action at the State Level

Immediately following the Healthy Aging Summit, ODPHP convened State Health Officers, Regional Health Administrators and State Aging Officials in partnership with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities. During a day-long workshop, participants discussed ideas and examples introduced at the Summit and identified priorities to focus on through regional and state-level public health policies and plans. The most common top priorities identified by participants included falls prevention and injury and violence prevention; mental health and cognition (including Alzheimer’s, dementia); tobacco cessation; physical activity, nutrition, and weight status; and caregiver support. Some emerging priorities included volunteerism, occupational safety, food insecurity, medication assistance, and domestic abuse. We hope this will be the first of many opportunities to convene state and regional health coordinators around the topic of healthy aging.

Key Takeaways and Next Steps for Healthy Aging

The Healthy Aging Summit was both inspiring because of the new ideas in research, treatment, and prevention that were presented, and motivating because of the challenges across sectors that must be met to fulfill our responsibility as policymakers to ensure that older Americans have access to the services they need to age well. During the closing plenary of the Summit, Dr. Somnath Chatterji of the World Health Organization identified challenges that we face in both developed and less developed countries. Dr. Chatterji emphasized the need to address factors that contribute to poor health in later years such as poor nutrition, chronic pain, and low quality of sleep. He also identified the need to provide better support for women, who are more likely to take on the role of caregivers for older adults and suffer from declining health in later years. Additional challenges identified during the Summit included addressing issues that affect caregiver health; developing and maintaining a healthcare workforce that is qualified to treat older adults, as continuity of care depends on attracting more healthcare workers to this field; and addressing the gap in translating research about healthy aging into public health policy and practice.

The Healthy Aging Summit was the first time at HHS that we convened national and international thought leaders at a national conference focused exclusively on public health policy and practice around healthy aging in the United States. The Summit aligned with our mission and mandate at ODPHP to provide leadership in disease prevention and health promotion, and we hope to continue the conversation with the foremost experts and policymakers on this topic. In the meantime, you have an opportunity to contribute to the conversation on healthy aging. The World Health Organization asked ODPHP to help solicit public consultation from individuals and institutions to inform their “Global Strategy and Action Plan on Ageing and Health.” Read the draft plan and provide feedback through October.

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