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  • The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) says chronic disease affects people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, those living in rural and remote areas, indigenous Australians and men, more than the rest of the population. (PA Wire)Source: PA Wire
Chronic disease continues to be the major cause of death among middle-aged and older Australians. Lifestyle changes and an ageing population have been linked to the prevalence of chronic disease. But some of these conditions are preventable, particularly if they’re addressed early in life. *to hear the English language story, click on the AUDIO tab*
Marcia de los Santos / SBS Radio Spanish

23 Jun 2015 - 11:44 AM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2015 - 11:45 AM

Chronic diseases are the main reasons older Australians are becoming ill, disabled and dying.

 The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) says chronic disease affects people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, those living in rural and remote areas, indigenous Australians and men, more than the rest of the population. 

 AIHW’s spokesperson Louise York explains that most deaths linked to chronic disease involve several common conditions.

“The leading cause of death among people aged 45 and over is coronary heart disease, which includes heart attack and that’s followed by cerebrovascular disease which includes stroke; and then cancers, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and then respiratory conditions. Most people who die from these chronic diseases do have multiple chronic diseases listed on their death certificates or in fact a range of diseases listed; on average, about three additional causes."

 The exact cause of many chronic conditions is not always clear but the AIHW identifies poor diet, lack of exercise, drug and alcohol abuse and smoking as major risk factors.

Obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar levels and family history are also contributors.

The good news is that through lifestyle improvement many of these risk factors can be prevented or minimized.

Nutrition Australia Queensland’s Senior Nutritionist and Accredited Practicing Dietitian Aloysa Hourigan says becoming more active can reduce the risk of developing many chronic diseases.

It is true that physical activity can really help to manage a lot of these problems and certainly to help keep things under control and maybe even prevent the onset, especially with things like diabetes and heart health and cancer. That even if you look at preventing secondary events of cancer, exercise or physical activity comes up as the thing that can offer you the most benefit in terms of preventing a second onset of the problem.”

Physical activity is also considered instrumental in improving balance, which in turn prevents falls.

“Another really important thing that is increasingly important as you age, is to maintain good balance, and if you stop being physically active, you’re more likely to have a fall, so in terms preventing falls which is probably one of the biggest causes of death for older Australians because often it might lead on to diminish mobility and sometimes pneumonia. So it would be important to prevent having a fall, and if you stay strong, then you are better able to do that.”

And to maintain physical strength, Aloysa Hourigan recommends experimenting with resistance training exercise programs.

“There’s a couple of projects around in age care facilities at the moment where they’re looking at people’s strength work and they’ve been other studies previously where they look at people in the 80s and 90s sometimes starting to do a little bit of work with very low level weights just to increase strength which in itself can improve your body function. For example, when people have chronic lung disease they sometimes are fearful of exercising or they feel they can’t, and often increasing their strengths, their muscle strength can be very helpful in terms of their ability to breathe and move and certainly if you’re able to engage in some physical activity it also helps your mental wellbeing. So often your own mood will be a lot better, so then your own quality of life and enjoyment of life can be better.”

Professor Maximilian de Courten is the director of the Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management at Victoria University.

He agrees that mental wellbeing contributes to a healthier life and keeps chronic diseases at bay.

“It’s not only of benefit on heart disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes and overweight, but also has great mental health benefits. It’s not about that you have to enrol in a gym and do a workout to have benefits from physical activity, but your daily walk, to have a dog you need to walk around. It comes often with socialization and so it improves quality of life and can prevent the onset of chronic disease”

The possibility of developing a chronic disease also increases with age.

In Australia figures from the AIHW reveal that men and women born between 2011 and 2013 can expect to live to around 80 and 84 years old; approximately 30 years longer than those born just over a century ago.

Given the risks, Nutrition Australia’s Aloysa Hourigan says it’s important to consider the “healthy mind, healthy body” connection, and to have a plan for staying mentally engaged after retirement.

“There’s groups like The University of the Third Age which certainly gives people the opportunity, when they’re older, to, you know make sure they’re using their skills and knowledge to talk to their older friends you know about things they know about. You know, I know I’ve come across clients, one who taught Russian and chess, because they were what he knew, he was a Russian man, and he held little classes and taught other people. So, if they retire and they don’t plan to do very much after they retire then life might lose its purpose, so actually having some hobbies and having some volunteer work or something that gives you a sense of community and a sense of being useful, then you’re probably able to cope with health issues better and you often are more enabled to make changes.”

Obesity is another factor fuelled by lifestyle that increases the risk of chronic conditions. 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2011-13 Health Survey highlighted the growing problem of obesity in Australia and estimated that almost 63% of Australian adults are now overweight or obese.

But preventing obesity is within the realm of possibility and can be achieved through exercise and healthier eating habits.

Nutritionist Aloysa Hourigan says the Department of Health’s 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines provides useful information on food and dietary recommendations to help people plan balanced and nutritious eating plans.

“Some of the key messages there include things like avoid as much processed foods as you can and to eat plenty of vegetables which is something Australians certainly aren’t very good at doing. And the other thing is to eat across all those main food groups. What we know when you’re looking in countries where they have lower rates of chronic disease, is often they don’t always snack as much, or if they snack it’s often on healthy foods like a bit of fruit. But I think the important thing is that people need to listen to their bodies, they need to listen to their appetite control.” 

Like exercise and diet, regular visits to the doctor are also considered an important part of a preventative healthcare plan, especially for people over 45.

Doctor of Medicine Carmelo Sammut has been treating patients across Melbourne for more than 25 years.

He says he’s seen many patients with risky health conditions who felt no apparent symptoms.

“It’s very important, at least to have a checkup to see that everything is okay and depending on that, the doctor can decide to leave it for another year or so, especially if there’s a family history. If there’s a family history, the chances of people with a family history of asthma, eczema, hay fever, they’ve got an increased risk. But if they are careful they can control it. But this is the important thing of going to the doctors to see what they can do to prevent it from getting any worse. So it’s important to control the condition to prevent side effects, you know, complications, happening in the future.” 

Victoria University’s Professor Maximilian de Courten believes there’s a lot of potential for Australians of all ages to minimize chronic disease risk factors and improve their quality of life.

He says now is the best time to start, regardless of age or background.

“If you are able to make changes to your lifestyle, improve your level of physical activity, and that doesn’t mean again that you need to enroll in a gym, but daily walks, things like that, if you can keep your weight under control, also by improving your diet, you will have benefits, and those benefits are gradual. And large studies with elderly people have been showing that the more changes you are able to do, the more benefits you have, so it’s never too late to improve one’s lifestyle.”