Living healthier, more productive years is the goal of population health management.
Just 20 years ago, about one in 10 workers was over the age of 55; today, it's one in five. We are aging as a nation. We are living longer than our forebears a century ago, but can effective population health management push back the serious effects from chronic disease so we can live healthier, more productive years?
In the typical lifespan, there is a point at which an individual first becomes chronically ill or disabled, and a further point at which a person dies. On average, the time between those two points is about 20 years, according to healthy aging pioneer James Fries. Fries envisions a world in which we may not add many more years to the end of life, but we can "compress morbidity," or shorten the number of years we suffer from illness.
The key question is: how can we maximize the healthy years of our lives? It's not just a question important to individuals; it's critically important to our economy as well. Population health and a nation's financial health are inextricably linked. This is the focus of the World Economic Forum's Healthy Living initiative, which found that more than 60 percent of global deaths are due to diseases associated with preventable lifestyle risk: cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases.
Closer to home, CEOs of some of the nation's largest companies unveiled a new initiative, Building Better Health: Innovative Strategies from America's Business Leaders, to leverage their market power to identify an evidence-based approach to population health.
As our working-age population grows older, it’s critical that employers seize the opportunity to address the factors that influence health and can enhance productivity in older workers. For those of us who work in health promotion and prevention, that starts with a change in how we define the concept of "health." Taking a cue from public health research, we must recognize that health is more than the absence of disease and take a whole-person approach to total well-being. Public health literature points to physical, social, economic, environmental and genetic "determinants of health" that combine to affect the health of individuals and populations. Using a more expansive term for this view of health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that well-being includes, at a minimum, positive emotions, satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive [physical] functioning.
This fuller definition of well-being comes into play as employers focus on the value of this aging workforce. Older workers offer tangible benefits for employers to keep them healthy and productive. Researchers found that older workers (over age 65) make fewer serious errors than their younger colleagues (age 20 – 31); they also offer experience, consistently high motivation, a balanced daily routine and stable mood.
The University of Louisville's program, "Get Healthy Now," opens health coaching to all interested employees, regardless of whether they are at low-, medium- or high-risk for chronic disease. Care-giving workshops are designed to help everyone from new parents to sandwich-generation Baby Boomers caring for elderly parents; elements include legal, financial and social factors. Mindfulness, yoga and relaxation are among the many classes offered to promote well-being. ROI analysis found the UofL program returned a benefit cost ratio of 7.16 to 1 after four years, and it has become a model for a statewide strategic wellness initiative called "Get Healthy Kentucky."
Evidence-based workplace health management programs that offer tools to support healthy aging can help older workers maintain active, productive lives. Some interventions, such as in-person health coaching, are particularly effective for those over age 40. In addition to a continued focus on the key behaviors that can help delay the onset of health problems (avoid tobacco, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy weight), it becomes more important than ever to invest in programs that enhance the emotional, physical, social and financial well-being of all workers—no matter their age.
About the Author:
A veteran of health education and health management product development, Tanja Madsen is director of product management for HealthFitness. She is involved in the development of the innovative HealthFitness technology platform, the Persona™ behavior change model, a short, engaging health assessment and a new approach to coaching. A certified health educator, Tanja works with a team that includes registered dietitians, health educators, exercise physiologists and behavior-change experts who are responsible for the development and management of national programs to improve population health.
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