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Older Canadians in good health: study

A recent snapshot of older Canadians paints a surprisingly positive picture of health.

“Almost 90 per cent of participants said their health is excellent or very good or good,” said Dr. Susan Kirkland, a principal investigator with Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging (CLSA), which released its latest report this week.

“It was even higher when it comes to mental health,” said Kirkland, who is interim chief of Dalhousie University’s department of community health and epidemiology. “We’re seeing interesting patterns in that in both physical and mental health as people age, they generally tend to think their health is better.”

The CLSA, a research collaboration involving about 160 researchers from 26 universities, has tracked the physical, mental and social health of more than 51,000 Canadians between 45 and 85 since 2010.

Participants must be cognitively healthy and live in their own homes or with family.

The researchers check in with participants every three years: A randomly selected group of about 30,000 are interviewed by phone, while the rest of the participants are really put under the microscope.

“We go into their home and we do a number of questionnaires,” Kirkland said in an interview Wednesday from Toronto, where the CLSA report was released. “Then they come into a data collection site and there we capture a lot more details through physical and clinical assessments. So we give them bone mineral density tests, respirology, EKG, ultrasounds, hearing, a large cognitive battery of tests. It’s really extensive.”

This kind of large-scale study provides crucial information for a better understanding of the health dimensions of aging and for directing health spending and policy, Kirkland said.

It’s especially important given the hand-wringing over the potential impacts of the baby boomer cohort on the health-care system.

“It speaks to the ageism in our society . . . that we automatically assume that everything’s negative with aging,” she said. “Baby boomers are much more aware of their health, they tend to have accumulated a reasonable amount of wealth, it’s the first generation of women who have spent their entire lives in the workforce. And I think we’re seeing some of those patterns and effects.”

That said, there are sub-groups within the 45 to 85 demographic who may be struggling, Kirkland said.

For example, about 35 per cent of women between 75 and 85 live alone, compared to the roughly 75 per cent of men in the same age bracket who are married.

“There’s a drastic, drastic difference,” she said. “What that means is women are living their older years by themselves. We know that living alone is much more precarious for physical, social and mental health. That’s a really important point.”

(The impact of dementia on our aging population is also significant, Kirkland noted, but this part of the CLSA didn’t cover that issue. She’s now researching how social networks, caregiving strategies and other supports can help society cope with the growing burden of dementia.)

About 4,600 Nova Scotians are taking part in the CLSA.

For the most part the study focuses on national trends and not provincial breakdowns. But comparative statistics were provided in areas such as transportation, retirement and sexuality.

About 8.5 per cent of Nova Scotian participants identified as lesbian and/or bisexual, while among men, 7.1 per cent identified as gay and/or bisexual.

Lots of seniors are keeping their grip on the wheel in our province. About 85 per cent of people over 65 drive their own vehicle, compared to the national average of 82 per cent.

Freedom 55: About 28 per cent of Nova Scotian women between 55 and 59 were completely retired (on the high side compared to many other provinces) and about 10 per cent were partially retired. For men, about 20 per cent were completely retired in that age group and about 12 per cent were partially retired.

And it will surprise nobody who’s been to a park lately that older Canadians (and probably younger ones, too) love their animals. Kirkland pointed out with a chuckle that almost half of CLSA participants, 43.8 per cent, have a pet. That percentage rises to 47.2 per cent among Nova Scotian participants.

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