What Do World Health Day, CHE’s Healthy Aging Initiative, and Bruce Springsteen All Have in Common?

In recognition of CHE’s 10th anniversary, colleagues who have been particularly instrumental to shaping CHE this past decade will be invited to write an introduction. This month’s introduction is by Maria Valenti, who serves as the national coordinator for CHE’s Healthy Aging and the Environment Initiative.

They are all about aging well.

April 7th was World Health Day, an annual observation to mark the founding of the World Health organization (WHO) in 1948. The theme this year is “Good health adds years to life.” According to a statement issued by the United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, this theme “conveys an important message: promoting health throughout life improves one’s chances of remaining healthy and productive in one’s later years.”

This statement could have been lifted from the pages of the report Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging co-authored in 2008 by Drs. Ted Schettler and Jill Stein, myself, and Ben Rohrer. CHE’s relatively new Healthy Aging and the Environment Initiative was founded on this same premise, a life-course approach to health, which recognizes that the path to healthy aging is paved with healthy pregnancies, childhoods and mid-lives.

It is ever more important to consider the health of those who are aging as the number of this population swells dramatically, nearly doubling in the US over the next two decades. Soon, worldwide, for the first time in history, there will be more people aged 65 or over than children under 5.  

How do we achieve the desired health? What does it mean to be healthy across the lifespan?

According to the WHO, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

In operational terms, this means a secure environment and freedom from violence, adequate shelter, access to sufficient and healthy food, clean water, sanitation, access to health care, and freedom from toxic trespass.

Australian aboriginal people (and probably many other indigenous cultures) define health in a little broader context: “Health does not just mean the physical well-being of the individual but refers to the social, emotional, spiritual and cultural well-being of the whole community. This is a whole of life view and includes the cyclical concept of life-death-life.” (see: A National Aboriginal Health Strategy, 1989)

Adding in a spiritual or moral dimension is consistent with the one of the few longitudinal studies of the healthiest elders in the world, the Okinawa Centenarian Study. Spirituality is a key component. Blue Zone researchers, who have been traveling the world to find the healthiest elders, have also found similar common denominators of the healthiest elder years: regular physical movement; good community and family relationships; eating healthy foods, and not too much; and a sense of purpose in life as well as a calm and centered outlook. All of the above depend in large part on some measure of economic justice or community support. Poverty and health are directly related. So economic justice is a companion to environmental justice.

The “systems” approach to health plays itself out in interconnected feedback loops. Bridging multiple environments necessary for health–the food, chemical, built, natural, psychosocial, economic–is a goal of CHE’s upcoming conference at the New York Academy of Medicine, Healthy Environments Across Generations. It will take place June 7 and 8th, and is now cosponsored by 50 organizations ranging across specialties and sectors, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, to the American Geriatrics Society, from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, to Smart Growth America. Please join us. We promise that this “unconference” will stimulate discussions to inspire all of us to find ways to help build an intergenerational, healthy aging movement that begins at the earliest age, and has a strong voice that resonates across many divides.

Which brings me to Bruce Springsteen–the Boss. A member of the over-60 age wave.

He is out on a new concert tour, “Wrecking Ball”–once again the voice of so many who have been disenfranchised and forced to the precipice of “un-health.” In a recent Rolling Stone interview with Jon Stewart, he spoke of the economic meltdown and our responsibilities to future generations.

“I have faith that through pressing on and paying attention and listening and being vigilant and voicing your concerns and insisting that the right thing be done, you can move your world inches closer to where you want it to be for your children. You have to have faith in that. You have to have a clear eye, but you still have to have an open heart and mind. You have to have spirit, you have to have the soul.”

Rock on Bruce. Healthy aging is indeed all about the health of future generations. I’m so glad we share something in common.

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