Tackling age-related diseases through better prevention

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Elderly shopper. Italy, 2013. [Gilulio Magnifico/Flickr]

In an attempt to address the challenges of ageing and demographic change in Europe, a group of MEPs has agreed to work together to bring disease prevention to the top of the European agenda on active and healthy ageing both at EU and national level.

By Heinz K. Becker MEP, Rebecca Taylor MEP, and Françoise Grossetête MEP

After hosting an event together in December 2013 launching a set of recommendations on the role of adult vaccination in the context of an ageing Europe, we agreed that disease prevention is not sufficiently addressed in the framework of Active and Healthy Ageing at EU level. As MEPs representing different political groups and Member States, we have decided to work together to increase the focus on disease prevention and health promotion for Europe’s senior citizens to help them remain independent and maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible.

While prevention is identified as a priority within the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing, the reality on the ground leaves much to be desired. EU Member States spend on average less than 3% of their health budgets on prevention and health promotion, despite research showing that such investment can result in better health, higher quality of life and slower functional decline for older people, which can contribute to enabling older people to continue to work when they want to and generally stay active longer.

To date the EU has taken action in relation to disease prevention including promoting exercise and healthy diets, regulating tobacco and alcohol labelling, and specific initiatives such as the EU cancer screening guidelines. However, efforts to prevent disease in older people have often overlooked the role vaccination can play, despite the fact that immune system function declines with age, which can leave older people at greater risk of some vaccine preventable diseases. 

One of the ways that we as MEPs are addressing this issue is through the recently adopted third health programme, which contributes to fighting age-related diseases by focusing both on prevention and innovation. One of the goals of the addressing prevention in the health programme is that By keeping the individuals in good health for as long as possible as well as maintaining their capacity to remain physically and socially active, we will also be able to optimise their positive impact on productivity and involvement in civil society. One of the main challenges to be addressed in prevention is to improve identification of risk factors so that more efficient prevention strategies can be put in place.

The event we hosted together in December 2013 highlighted the fact that although vaccination is mostly associated with children, it can and should be life course including where appropriate for older adults. In December, we heard from patients and researchers about how painful and debilitating shingles can be for older people, yet that shingles is now a vaccine preventable disease, although the vaccine is not yet widely available.

We strongly support health promotion, and disease prevention measures be they healthy diet, exercise or vaccination, should target all sections of the population where they are shown to be effective. In launching the policy recommendations in December we wanted to draw attention to the need to include vaccination in health promotion and disease prevention strategies for adults including tackling the challenges of an ageing population through national strategies for healthy ageing.

In a year of European elections, we as MEPs have an important opportunity to ensure that European cooperation in the prevention of age related diseases is part of the debate on how the EU provides added value for Member States. We are proud to use our role as Members of the European Parliament to send a clear message that older people must be considered as a resource and not a burden for Europe. However, to best protect this valuable resource, it is necessary to invest in disease prevention and health promotion for older people not only to help them maintain good health and remain productive, but also to stay independent and out of long term care for longer.

We all believe that Europe’s older generations are a great resource for society and that action both at EU and national level is needed to make supporting their health and wellbeing a political priority. We consider this to be a priority and we will encourage others to do the same.