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Cambridge Public Health

Healthy ageing exercise programme

By Dr Angelique Mavrodaris and Professor Carol Brayne

August 2022

Ageing presents a global population health challenge on several fronts. For the first time in history, by 2050, the number of people aged 65 and over will outnumber children aged five and under. The implications of this have yet to be fully explored — though we’re beginning to see the effects of this demographic shift on our world.

In both scale and impact, population ageing has far-reaching implications for the planet. These include sustainable development efforts to eradicate poverty, achieve food security, ensure sustainable consumption and build inclusive and empowered communities. Further, it’s critical that we understand that environmental changes will affect ageing populations who are already vulnerable — both now and in the future. With more than 60% of the world’s population aged over 60 years living in low- and middle-income countries, ageing communities face poverty, stigma and inequality. 

We currently face unrivalled population health challenges spanning pandemics, energy and cost of living crises and conflict — with increasing demands on our natural ecosystems. How we design and apply global sustainable solutions in response to these issues is critical, and yet the possibilities for synergistic action offer tangible and equitable solutions. 


The effects of environmental issues on the health of ageing populations

Disturbances in ecosystems and the climate will have direct and indirect effects on human health. The direct effects include those resulting from extreme weather events such as flooding, heat waves and severe storms; the indirect effects include altered vector-borne disease transmission due to increased temperatures, the inability to grow and produce nutritious food because of drought or damage of land and water restrictions and compromised water safety. 

The insecurity these threats will create may result in destruction of environments and communities and potential conflict-stimulating migration, displacement and isolation of those too weak or unable to move. Each of these effects will be felt even more by older populations as the socioeconomic determinants of health are compromised. 


Healthy ageing and sustainability: a synergistic approach

To face these challenges, we have a range of opportunities that promote ageing well in alignment with sustainability — all of which rely on a simple maxim: what is good for the environment is good for health.

For example, a recent study demonstrated that physically active travel cut the risk of mortality from heart disease and stroke by up to a third. Reducing car use and engaging in more physical activity through active travel options improves health and reduces air pollution. 

Protecting and extending green and blue spaces and ensuring access to these, particularly in urban environments, has been shown to have beneficial effects on mental health and cognition in addition to filtering pollution from the air and reducing local air and ground temperature.

Similar alignments can be made for designing more sustainable, insulated and connected homes and communities as well as for healthier dietary patterns and food production.

Strategically, synergy with cross-sectoral agendas offer clear opportunities for solutions that deliver co-benefits across health, sustainability and equity. Our recent work explores the alignments between the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Healthy Ageing agendas. Here multiagency action not only presents shared solutions but also added potential to consolidate and strengthen policies which alone would have limited impact.


Our work to promote health, sustainability and equity 

The overarching connections between global ageing and sustainability are clear: a focus on sustainable healthy ageing is fundamental to a healthy planet. Our responses to date have, however, largely been disconnected. In 2018, Cambridge Public Health hosted “Ageing in Planet” at the Planetary Health Annual meeting in Edinburgh, a session which brought together academics, policy-makers and practitioners from across sectors as well as partners from the WHO and Age International to explore and stimulate action on sustainable ageing. Since then we have continued to build our work, presenting at meetings and conferences and hosting sessions such as at European Public Health week.

To progress this dual agenda, our work aims to do the following: 

  • articulate and advocate the fundamental links between health, ageing, climate and sustainability to improve our understanding and inform policy and practice;
  • assess whether current global healthy ageing policies include a strategic focus on sustainability and describe the foundations and potential for alignment;
  • co-create solutions together with multidisciplinary partners and local communities to achieve health, sustainability and equity.


Moving forward

The recently declared 2021-30 Decade of Healthy Ageing by the UN General Assembly provides an ideal platform for action. We now know that healthy living and healthy ageing rely on a sustainable planet — and that healthier populations create a healthier, sustainable world. 

This cannot be done in isolation, and will depend on ingenuity and consistent commitment from us all to bring to life a shared vision of what kind planet we all want to thrive and grow old in. We all have a role to play in choosing and creating the kind of planet we want to live and thrive in. And while understanding the challenges are fundamental, we need to go further and reinvent the way we inspire change across sectors and within local communities.

About the authors

Angelique Mavrodaris is a clinical research fellow at Cambridge Public Health and a consultant in public health at the UK Health Security Agency.

Carol Brayne is a professor of public health at Cambridge and the co-director of Cambridge Public Health.


Research theme

Life-course and ageing