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Global Health. 2011 Oct 28;7:43. doi: 10.1186/1744-8603-7-43.

Social participation and healthy ageing: a neglected, significant protective factor for chronic non communicable conditions.

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1
Burnet Institute, 85 Commercial Road, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 3004, GPO Box 2284, Melbourne, Victoria, 3001, Australia. holmes@burnet.edu.au.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Low and middle income countries are ageing at a much faster rate than richer countries, especially in Asia. This is happening at a time of globalisation, migration, urbanisation, and smaller families. Older people make significant contributions to their families and communities, but this is often undermined by chronic disease and preventable disability. Social participation can help to protect against morbidity and mortality. We argue that social participation deserves much greater attention as a protective factor, and that older people can play a useful role in the prevention and management of chronic conditions. We present, as an example, a low-cost, sustainable strategy that has increased social participation among elders in Sri Lanka.

DISCUSSION:

Current international policy initiatives to address the increasing prevalence of non-communicable chronic diseases are focused on cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease and cancers, responsible for much premature mortality. Interventions to modify their shared risk factors of high salt and fat diets, inactivity, smoking and alcohol use are advocated. But older people also suffer chronic conditions that primarily affect quality of life, and have a wider range of risk factors. There is strong epidemiological and physiological evidence that social isolation, in particular, is as important a risk factor for chronic diseases as the 'lifestyle' risk factors, yet it is currently neglected. There are useful experiences of inexpensive and sustainable strategies to improve social participation among older people in low and lower middle income countries. Our experience with forming Elders' Clubs with retired tea estate workers in Sri Lanka suggests many benefits, including social support and participation, inter-generational contact, a collective voice, and facilitated access to health promotion activities, and to health care and social welfare services.

SUMMARY:

Policies to address the increase in chronic non-communicable diseases should include consideration of healthy ageing, conditions that affect quality of life, and strategies to increase social participation. There are useful examples showing that it is feasible to catalyse the formation of Elders' Clubs or older people's associations which become self-sustaining, promote social participation, and improve health and well-being of elders and their families.

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