The first week of April is National Public Health Week. To mark the occasion, we wanted to share how Public Health—Seattle & King County (Public Health) is working with the Area Agency on Aging for King County and other local initiatives to improve the health of older adults.
Improving health and increasing longevity
Nationally, on average, a woman born today can expect to live more than three decades longer than her great-grandmother born at the turn of the last century. This unprecedented gain is rooted in developments in medical science and also in the history of public health—studying the sources of contagion and how to control diseases led to interventions, including sanitation, immunizations, and health education.
Applying what we know, Public Health works every day to ensure that the water you drink is pure and that the food you eat is safe. We protect King County residents against exposure to communicable diseases and to prepare for an orderly response to public health emergencies. Through this work, we lay a foundation for health that benefits everyone in our community.
We also know that health is determined by a lot more than just health care. Where and how people in our county can access healthy foods, be active, age in place, and engage actively in their communities can make the difference between a long and healthy life and death.
At Public Health, our goal is to increase the number of healthy years lived by everyone in King County.
Reducing health disparities
While the gains in longevity—or life expectancy—are astounding, not everyone benefits equally. For average life expectancy, King County is a top performer among all counties in the U.S.—95th percentile. But longevity varies widely depending on a person’s race and where she lives. For example, women in South Bellevue can expect to live more than 10 years longer than those in South Renton.
The life expectancy graphic at right illustrates what we see when we drill down and look at life expectancy at the neighborhood level. There are huge differences across Seattle and our region. Look at the dark red in South Renton, which has an average life expectancy of 74 years. Now compare that to the dark blue in South Bellevue, which has an average life expectancy of 87 years.
King County government and Public Health believe it is unacceptable that longevity, like many other health indicators, varies widely based on zip code. These inequalities, or differences in health outcomes, are known as health disparities. Public Health programs and initiatives aim to improve the health of the whole county and reduce health disparities by targeting programs to people who most need them.
Promoting healthy living and healthy aging
Promoting healthy living is a key pillar of healthy aging. There are a number of ways that Public Health—Seattle & King County promotes health for older adults:
- Immunizations. Many communicable diseases disproportionately impact older adults. As you age, your immune system weakens and it can be more difficult to fight off infections. Vaccines can protect you from serious diseases—like the flu and shingles—and related complications so you can stay healthy as you age. At Public Health, we promote immunizations and recommend, for example, that everyone receive their annual flu shot—especially older adults.
- Fall prevention. Falls are the most common nonfatal trauma-related hospital admission among older adults. Our Emergency Medical System (EMS) routinely responds to fall-related calls, and we have a program that provides free follow-up assistance to reduce the risk of another fall.
- Cancer screening. We also promote breast, cervical, and colon cancer screenings for adults who don’t have insurance or who have a high deductible for follow-up cancer tests. Older adults are at greater risk for chronic diseases like cancer, so we want to make sure older adults have access to screening and other early detection care.
- Foodborne Illness. Our new food safety signs make it easier for people to assess risk when eating at a restaurant. This can be particularly useful for adults ages 65 and older, who are at higher risk for foodborne illness and related complications.
- Healthy Eating and Active Living. Public Health has a long history of providing services to help older adults manage chronic conditions and creating environments that supports healthy eating and active living for seniors. Our work includes promoting healthy food programs like Fresh Bucks and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, developing programs that support physical activity and providing them at places where older adults gather, and creating policies related to healthy food procurement and preparation in hospitals, senior centers, and food banks. For information on healthy aging programs in your area, contact Community Living Connections.
We are also keeping our eyes on some emerging issues that impact older adults:
- Emerging Communicable Diseases. A high percentage of people with hepatitis C are older adults, and most don’t even know they have the disease. We are working on improving screening rates for older adults.
- Opioids. Higher rates of chronic pain and reliance on multiple medications make older adults particularly vulnerable to opioid addiction. In fact, Medicare patients have some of the highest rates of Opioid Use Disorder, including related hospitalizations increasing by 10 percent per year. Public Health is a leader in addressing this challenge locally through the Opiate Addiction Task Force.
- Climate Change. Climate change is something that Public Health is watching closely, especially related to emergency preparedness. Older adults are more susceptible to extreme weather conditions, and our emergency preparedness unit pays attention to the needs of our older population by, for example, working with organizations that serve older adults, and including specific messaging in our communications for older adults, when needed.
Collaborating with local older-adult initiatives
Public Health—Seattle & King County is delighted to participate in a number of local initiatives and programs that promote health for older adults. For instance, Age Friendly Seattle and a countywide community-based age-friendly task force staffed by Aging and Disability Services are great examples of cross-sector collaborations that are helping make our communities great places to grow up and grow old. Public Health will continue to be an active partner in that initiative.
Additionally, the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy is adding more resources in our community to invest in older adults. Public Health will continue to support the King County Department of Community and Human Services in the planning and execution of levy funding for older adults.
Finally, Public Health is becoming a sponsoring partner of Aging and Disability Services—the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) for Seattle and King County. Over the past year, our increased participation with the AAA has led to greater understanding of the health and equity challenges and opportunities for older adults across the county. We look forward to continuing to increase the number of healthy years lived for everyone in King County.
Ingrid McDonald, Mary Snodgrass, and Patty Hayes contributed to this article. Ingrid is policy director, Mary is a program manager, and Patty directs Public Health—Seattle & King County, which serves all King County residents across the life span. Learn more about Public Health and the services the agency provides. Sign up to get useful, timely information at PublicHealthInsider.com.