My Turn: Healthier and happier aging in New Hampshire

For the Monitor
Published: 4/22/2019 12:10:16 AM

For the first time, we have an in-depth analysis of the health of older people in New Hampshire, a comprehensive breakdown of the wellness, illness and lifestyles of Granite Staters using 166 health indicators in each of 244 cities and towns. Now the question is how we use all that data to improve lives, communities, health care and workplaces.

This report is particularly useful for employers given the changing demographics of our state. New Hampshire has one of the oldest populations in the United States, with 20 percent of residents over the age of 60. The good news is that for the most part, older New Hampshire residents are healthy. Our state ranks third in the health of older residents nationally. That means these individuals are working and contributing longer than ever before.

As the traditional workforce continues to shrink and unemployment remains low, business leaders and employers have an opportunity to capitalize on this older demographic and create happier and more productive work environments.

Funded by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation and produced by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, with input from the New Hampshire Alliance for Healthy Aging, this new report is a crucial resource for employers, communities and health care providers who want to take a deep dive into what is working, and what may not be, for older residents of rural areas, towns and cities across the state.

The report provides a granular view of how older people fare on a wide range of health issues including vaccinations, diabetes, cancer, lymphomas and leukemia, and heart and liver disease. It offers insights on nutrition, behavioral health and civic engagement as well as data on transportation, housing and safety. Each community is broken down along education and ethnic lines, and has statistics on diet and nutrition and exercise trends, among others.

As the report shows, there are disparities by gender and by where residents live – in a wealthy or poor community; a small town, or a city or a rural area; and by the availability of quality health care. Older New Hampshire men generally do a good job of prioritizing exercise while women seem to focus more on a healthy diet.

Employers can play a role in creating communities that support healthy aging. In New Hampshire’s cities, particularly Manchester, they can support efforts to add benches, ramps and lighting to make parks and recreation areas safer and more accessible. In rural communities, they can champion programs to improve access to preventive health measures, including flu and shingles vaccines and regular medical checkups. In other areas of the state, they can support efforts to increase access to healthy quality fruits and vegetables.

When it comes to people in Concord, older residents generally fared better on healthy aging indicators – they had lower rates of heart disease, leukemias and lymphomas, and liver diseases. But among the 6,387 Concord residents over 65, rates of hip fracture, obesity and cholesterol were higher than the state averages.

Concord also has high rates of depression and anxiety, indicating that programs aimed at letting residents know there is help, and hope, might be in order. Similarly, Concord’s high rate of tobacco use might lead community leaders to consider strong programs aimed at helping people quit.

So what does this all mean for employers?

The data suggests that some relatively simple initiatives and policies could boost workplace productivity, retention and quality of life. For example, many of the challenges outlined above could be – at least in part – addressed through the creation or expansion of workplace wellness initiatives that help employees access additional exercise and health opportunities.

Employers could also offer greater workplace flexibility that includes flexible schedules and telecommuting options – which can be particularly helpful for rural areas. Work from home and leave-of-absence programs can help older populations or employees caring for aging parents. We’ve found these programs help us attract quality employees of all ages.

In general, we are older for longer. What does that mean for the workplace, for funding, for health care? Crucially, those older years can be productive and happy – even in the workplace – but only if we do everything in our power to make those healthy years. The good news is that interest in healthy aging is building across the state. More than a dozen New Hampshire communities have joined the Age-Friendly Community Network, making a commitment to make their cities and towns great places to grow up and grow old.

(Gerri Vaughan is the president of Tufts Health Freedom Plan.)


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