Older Australians living in urban areas are more likely to have a long-term health problem than those in rural or remote locations, with people from disadvantaged areas faring the worst of all.
Recent research from the University of Sydney looked at the correlation between environmental factors and non-infectious chronic disease in the ageing population using 1,256 survey participants, aged over 45, who had lived in the same location for at least 20 years (Black D, O’Loughlin K, Kendig H & Wilson L 2012, “Cities, environmental stressors, ageing and chronic disease”, Australasian Journal on Ageing, no. 31, pp. 147–151, doi: 10.1111/j.1741-6612.2011.00552.x).
The non-infectious diseases they considered included conditions like type 2 diabetes, arthritis, cancer and asthma, all of which are suspected to be affected by environmental risk factors, or stressors.
As lead author Professor Deborah Black said:
“In the city you’re exposed to a range of environmental stressors, such as poor air quality, aircraft and road noise, high density housing, lack of adequate transport, poor urban design, a lack of green spaces and shade trees, and so on.”
“As people get older, their bodies are less able to cope physiologically with environmental stressors, and exposure can accelerate the ageing process and trigger or exacerbate disease.”
Low socioeconomic status was a big factor in this, with those living in the most disadvantaged areas having a 90 per cent greater chance of having a long-term health condition. These areas, with the cheapest housing, are often also near industrial areas, airports or busy roads, and also have reduced access to health services and public transport.
Urban health problems are expected to only worsen with climate change, as the heat island effect causes paved areas to reach higher temperatures, to which the elderly are more susceptible. This suggests that it’s important to try and improve urban environments by maintaining green spaces among the bitumen and concrete.