• New study confirms connection to culture key to ageing well (Supplied)Source: Supplied
As the government handed down its annual Closing the Gap report this morning, another study was launched on the New South Wales mid-north coast with a positive focus on ageing.
Rachael Hocking

12 Feb 2020 - 11:27 AM  UPDATED 12 Feb 2020 - 11:27 AM

For Uncle Terry Donovan, being culturally aware and connected to his community "is probably the most important thing". The Gumbaynggirr and Biripi Elder credits his family and cultural ties for the reason that at 72-years of age he is still working and giving back to his mob. 

And now that connection is also being credited with reducing the risk of dementia in later life, according to new research Uncle Terry has been working on with brain institute NeuRA and funded by the Lowitja Institute. 

"Growing old well means being healthy, being able to do the things that we always do, be there for our children and our grandchildren," he said.

"It means looking after your body, looking after yourself, eating the right foods. And not just living our life separately but still being part of a community, I think that’s very important as well."

For the past six years Uncle Terry has been working with a research team, speaking with communities on the NSW mid-north coast and Sydney regions. Their study, called Sharing the Wisdom of our Elders, aims to flip the deficit narrative by focusing on what communities are doing to thrive in old age. 

It comes following previous research by NeuRA which found that Indigenous people develop dementia around 10 years earlier than the rest of the population - and at a rate 300 to 500 per cent higher. 

While many of the contributing factors to dementia have been well documented, such as ageing and poor diet, team leader Dr Kylie Radford said there is a growing understanding that social and cultural influences can be just as important.

"The people in our research are telling us they know they need to look after their health and do those things your GP says, but it's this cultural health which is a really important factor, in the context of brain health and wellbeing," she said.

Uncle Terry said part of ageing well for community was the ability to pass on cultural knowledge to younger generations, and that inter-generational trauma impacts on their ability to do that. 

He said it was important that families and communities talk with each other about what makes them resilient and strong as they age. 

"As Aboriginal people we suffer more than anyone else in Australia, and we found as a group of researchers that the reasons why we suffer is trauma," he said. 

"Socialise a lot more within your community, talk to your neighbours, talk to your friends, go to Aboriginal groups and activities where sometimes you see cousins or other relations you haven't seen in years.

"It's about getting out there and doing something."

CEO of the Lowitja Institute Janine Mohamed agreed.

“Our Elders are the precious custodians of the cultural determinants, which are vital to the health and wellbeing of our communities. They are the legacy holders who make a present, dynamic and critical contribution to the flourishing of our peoples,” she said.

"Living a longer life is not enough, you need to live a good life."

Dr Radford said it was a coincidence the research was being launched on the same day as the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap address, which has indicated the target to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is still not on track to be met by 2031. 

"What our research is highlighting is that living a longer life is not enough, you need to live a good life," Dr Radford said.

"You don’t want to live longer and have a higher risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases. Closing the gap needs to have broader focus than just living longer." 

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