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Secrets to ageing well differ for men and women

Professor Colette Browning

Professor Colette Browning

Providers of healthy ageing programs should tailor their interventions according to their client’s gender, as new research has found that the factors contributing to wellness in older age differ for men and women.

The Australian research, which is being presented this week at an international conference in Barcelona, found that continence was a key factor contributing to wellness in older women, while social activity was an important contributor for men.

However, the researchers also said the study told an important story about the positive impact that healthy ageing programs were having in the community.

The research was based on a 2006 follow-up of participants in the Melbourne Longitudinal Study on Health Ageing, which has tracked 1,000 community-dwelling older people since 1994. It defined ageing well as living independently in the community and being in good physical and psychological health.

It found that the key risk factors for not ageing well in men were perceived strain, lower levels of social activity, perceived inadequacy of social activity, low perceived social support and being a current smoker, while for women the key factors were incontinence, low body mass index and lower physical activity.

Co-director of the study, Professor Colette Browning from Monash University, said the findings were significant and the gender differences should be considered when interventions and services for older people were being designed.

“What we’re saying is, it’s not a one size fits all; you must look at gender issues,” she said.

Professor Browning said the social activity factor for older men was particularly interesting given there was often a perception that such activities weren’t a priority for them.

“In some ways men get a lot of their social interaction through their work, so perhaps it’s that when they have retired they don’t have as much social support, and that becomes an issue in terms of not ageing well. I think women are perhaps better at keeping up their social networks.”

Men’s low perception of social activity illustrated that they understood they were not getting enough social activity and this was impacting on them not ageing well, she said. “Part of it is about perceptions. Psychologically, if you feel you are not getting what you want, that’s going to impact on whether you feel you are ageing well or not.”

The finding of continence as a factor for women illustrated that this was an issue that had to be addressed earlier in life, Professor Browning said. “Issues around continence often happen after women have children, so we need early interventions so women don’t carry that issue through to older life as well.”

Across both genders, the research echoed previous studies in showing that physical activity was an important factor impacting on ageing well.

A positive story

An overarching message from the research was that people living in the community were doing reasonably well, which countered common negative stereotypes about ageing, said Professor Browning.

When the study started, the average age of the participants was 73. Twelve years later, half the participants had passed away and only a third had entered residential care prior to their death. Of the surviving participants, the majority were considered to be still ageing well, which the researchers described as “quite remarkable”.

“It’s important to get the positive message out that people who are engaging in healthy behaviours, like being physically active and having good social support, are doing quite well, they’re living a good life.”

Professor Browning said the other positive message for providers was that there were things they could do differently to improve their interventions for men and women.

That positive story is being taken to Barcelona this week, where co-director on the study, Professor Hal Kendig from the Australian National University is presenting the study’s findings at the Impact of Ageing on Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference.

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