Never too old to be active: investigating the health benefits of older adults being physically active
Background: With the expected growth in the older adult population there is increasing concern as to how health care and health systems will be affected. This concern is driven by the greater prevalence and severity of morbidity, increased mortality and rapid rise in health expenditure that are associated with older adults. Evidence indicates that physical activity is one way in which to modify and improve older adult health, health status and quality of life and an intervention that may be economically advantageous.
Aims: To investigate i) whether participating in the Never 2 Old Active Aging programme (N2O) had an effect on health outcomes, ii) whether these health effects were influenced by the participants level of engagement in this programme and iii) how these health effects might translate into economic measures.
Methods: 225 N2O members, between 55 and 93 years old, were recruited from eleven of the sixteen N2O providers. A single retrospective self-assessed questionnaire was completed in which participants were asked about their physical activity, health status, health care service utilisation, health care expenditure and falls. Study findings were compared to national data collected in the Ministry of Health 2006/2007 New Zealand National Health Survey and between N2O member sub-groups based on differentiated levels of engagement in the programme.
Results: Study results indicate that N2O members who were aged 75yrs or over and female were statistically significantly less likely to be sedentary, as well as statistically significantly more likely to report better self-rated health status, when compared to the Ministry of Health data. Results also suggest that N2O members were ‘relatively’ better than the Ministry of Health comparatives as they had smaller declines in regular physical activity, smaller increases in sedentary behaviour and smaller decreases in self-rated health between successive age groups. These results suggest that involvement in the N2O programme helped members maintain their physical activity and slow the rate of decline in self-rated health that is generally associated with age. The preliminary economic assessment, using a Cost of Illness approach, estimates that potentially up to 47 deaths could be averted and NZ$130.23million in health expenditure could be saved each year if all older New Zealander adults participated in the N2O programme. However when programme costs were taken into consideration the N2O programme was not shown to be ‘cost effective’.
Conclusion: This study has provided only a simple, provisional snapshot of both the health and economic benefits associated with older adults participating in the N2O programme. A more robust research design and more in-depth quantitative analysis is required to make definitive statements about causal relationships and to accurately measure the range of costs and benefits associated with this intervention. Future research should include control groups and the pre-testing of participants as well as longitudinal and/or ongoing data collection. Such information would be invaluable in identifying the changing health needs of older adults and developing effective physical activity programmes for this populace.