Staying healthy is a top concern for many older adults, particularly in the areas of staying mentally sharp and physically fit. AARP encourages people to stay healthy as they age, in part, by assuming personal responsibility for their health by taking preventive measures to guard against illness and disease. While access to preventive services and quality health care are important components of health promotion, they are not enough. Social determinants of health—such as access to employment, education, housing, healthy foods, safe streets and neighborhoods, and social supports—are important predictors of health outcomes and health behaviors. Policymakers at all levels of government should consider interventions and public policies that can reduce barriers to healthy living and influence health outside of formal medical care systems. Policymakers and private entities, including insurers, and programs such as those offered in senior centers, should cover evidence-based exercise programs that have shown improvement individuals’ health and well-being.
To maximize their health outcomes, it is important for consumers and their family caregivers to understand how to engage effectively with medical systems as well as community-based resources that support and promote health. As formal health systems shift more decisions and costs to consumers and their family caregivers, it is important that they be equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully work with these systems to maintain and/or improve health.
Although definitions of consumer and family engagement vary, for purposes of AARP public policy, consumer and family engagement means (a) providing consumers and their family caregivers with the knowledge, skills, and other tools they need to play an active role in maintaining and/or improving health and well-being and (b) helping consumers and family caregivers overcome structural and personal barriers to engaging with formal and informal systems of care.
It is important to note that, for a variety of reasons, not everyone has the capacity for or interest in engaging in activities that maintain, improve, or support their health. These individuals should not be penalized for this. Rather, public policymakers and private entities with interest in the field should work together to identify promising strategies to help people overcome barriers to engagement.
Maintaining cognitive health is a key component of healthy aging. Emerging evidence suggests that lifestyles that include physical exercise, good nutrition, social interaction, stress reduction, healthy sleep habits, and mental engagement can improve cognition and potentially reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and related forms of dementia. As the US population ages, the costs of providing care and services to individuals with cognitive decline and/or related dementia are likely to increase, impacting health and quality of life for individuals and their families and straining health resources. Policymakers must consider steps that individuals, the health care sector, government entities, and the private sector can take to maintain and improve cognitive health throughout the lifespan.
Finally, a growing number of consumers now have access to their own health information through electronic health records, as well as to increasing amounts of information on all aspects of health care through online sources. On the one hand, this information may help consumers and family caregivers make better health care decisions. On the other hand, decisions concerning insurance coverage, provider networks, and treatment options have become more complex and now demand higher-level understanding and engagement from consumers and family caregivers. Some consumers face challenges that prevent them from actively advocating for themselves. Consumers with low health literacy, people with cognitive impairment, and those who are ill, in pain, or experiencing stress from their health condition(s) may not be in a position to actively engage. In addition, for consumers, accessing transparent information on price and quality performance remains challenging. Many health care decisions—e.g., whether to seek health care and where to go for care—can have important financial consequences for individuals and the health care system.
To promote and encourage greater engagement from consumers, transparent information on price, quality, and outcomes must be available in ways that are accessible to consumers and families. The infrastructure should be in place to help consumers and family caregivers understand how that information can help them make better choices. Public and private entities should provide assistance and adequate support to empower individuals and help them self-advocate so that they can better engage with providers, health care systems, and health insurers. A high-quality health care system should adapt to the individual needs of consumers and their families and should build supports for family caregivers or others who take on the role of advocating and caring for people unable to advocate for themselves. Consumers’ health goals, preference, and outcomes should be elicited and become part of the person’s health care plan and treatment options.