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Encouraging ageing well, with keynote speaker Professor Eddy Strivens

5 Jun 2023

Looking at healthy ageing has been a lifetime’s work for Professor Eddy Strivens, a key speaker at this year’s CRANAplus conference in Cairns in October. Here he talks about becoming an ‘accidental researcher.’

Pro­fes­sor Eddy Strivens, a prac­tis­ing clin­i­cian and nation­al leader in geri­atric med­i­cine and demen­tia, stress­es that the goal is not about liv­ing longer, it’s about the qual­i­ty of life in your remain­ing years.

And when it comes to demen­tia, he says the aim for his patients is not to con­cen­trate on the dis­ease, but to look at what you can do to encour­age age­ing well.

Sure, it’s impor­tant for demen­tia patients to get their affairs in order,’ he says. But then focus on your qual­i­ty of life.’

Eddy says about half of all demen­tia cas­es are poten­tial­ly pre­ventable by look­ing at pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures and his top three sug­ges­tions to pre­vent demen­tia, to reduce its pro­gres­sion, and, at the third stage, to pro­mote a life of liv­ing well are:

  • Exer­cis­ing, which he believes is as good as tak­ing med­i­cine and he empha­sis­es using weights and bands as well as aer­o­bic exercise
  • eat­ing well, and he sug­gests adopt­ing a Mediter­ranean diet, and
  • engag­ing in soci­ety such as join­ing groups, hav­ing a hob­by, keep­ing in touch with fam­i­ly and friends and tak­ing an inter­est in the community

Warraber Island from the air

Sur­pris­ing­ly – it all starts in preg­nan­cy, says Eddy, who finds what dri­ves him when it comes to improv­ing health is look­ing at either end of the liv­ing spec­trum. It’s nev­er too ear­ly and it’s nev­er too late to look close­ly at those mid-life fac­tors,’ he says.

We can’t do any­thing about fam­i­ly and age, but we can change things like vas­cu­lar risks from smok­ing, lack of exer­cise and also lack of education.

I call myself an acci­den­tal researcher,’ says Eddy. I’m a clin­i­cian through and through but to answer clin­i­cal ques­tions about age­ing, I dis­cov­ered the impor­tance of link­ing research with clin­i­cal outcomes.

It all goes back, says Eddy, to some of the work he did with a clin­i­cal out­reach ser­vice in the Tor­res Strait a num­ber of years ago.

We saw increased rates of demen­tia and at a younger age. The rate was three times what you’d expect on main­land Aus­tralia. We then start­ed to recog­nise high rates of health issues such as vas­cu­lar dis­eases and strokes.

We didn’t have the right tools to sup­port these peo­ple. Let’s face it, back then those tools were cre­at­ed for age­ing white US psy­chi­atric patients. Not at all applic­a­ble in the Tor­res Strait. What we need­ed was to devel­op cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate cog­ni­tive assess­ment tools.’

Clin­ic on Mabuiag Island with mem­bers of HART

This led to a cur­rent five-year project for Pro­fes­sor Strivens and a team of James Cook Uni­ver­si­ty researchers work­ing with long­stand­ing com­mu­ni­ty part­ners in the Tor­res Strait, as well as the Uni­ver­si­ty of West­ern Aus­tralia, Mel­bourne Health Aged Care, the Top End Health Ser­vice, the Tor­res and Cape Hos­pi­tal and Health Ser­vice, and the Cairns and Hin­ter­land Hos­pi­tal and Health Ser­vice. The team includes aca­d­e­mics, clin­i­cians, and researchers, all with an inter­est in geron­tol­ogy and inte­grat­ed ser­vice deliv­ery models.

The big les­son we have learned through this work,’ says Eddy, is the need across health gen­er­al­ly to co-design pro­grams with the com­mu­ni­ty involved. It’s the com­mu­ni­ty pro­gramme that is suc­cess­ful, not a pro­gramme designed in Canberra.’

HART (L to R) Dr Kathryn Mel­drum, Val­da Wal­lace, Diane Cadet-James, Dr Kis­hani Town­shend, Tor­res Webb, Janet Swan­son, Dr Jen­ny Mann, Prof Eddy Strivens, Mel Kil­burn, Fin­tan Thomp­son, Rachel Quigley, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Sarah Rus­sell, Bet­ty Sagi­gi, Chenoa Wapau, Dr Yvonne Hornby-Turner

Eddy empha­sis­es the impor­tance of research with­in com­mu­ni­ties, defin­ing the prob­lems with­in the com­mu­ni­ty, and design­ing the research in tan­dem with the community.

Through sur­veys and feed­ing back results into the Tor­res Strait com­mu­ni­ty, we learned the peo­ple didn’t want to con­cen­trate on the dis­ease of demen­tia, but to look at what could be done to encour­age age­ing well,’ he says.

We under­took yarn­ing cir­cles with the com­mu­ni­ty to check out what healthy age­ing looks like for them and, through par­tic­i­pa­to­ry research, how indi­vid­u­als can change to pro­mote age­ing well.

A Yarn­ing Cir­cle on Warraber Island with (L to R) Chenoa Wapau, Rachel Quigley and Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Sarah Russell

Our research pri­or­i­ties are dri­ven by the pri­or­i­ties iden­ti­fied in the communities.’

Eddy, orig­i­nal­ly from Nor­folk in Eng­land, arrived in Cairns for a 12-month stint – and I’m still here 20 years lat­er. I fell in love with the role I had in geri­atric care, with the com­mu­ni­ty and with this part of the world.

I am so grate­ful for the Healthy Age­ing Research Team (HART), the com­mu­ni­ty teams and the hos­pi­tal col­lab­o­ra­tion that has been cru­cial for this program.’

Pro­fes­sor Eddy Strivens will be dis­cussing geri­atric med­i­cine, demen­tia and research, and in par­tic­u­lar, his exten­sive work with Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Islander com­mu­ni­ties in Far North Queens­land at the CRANAplus Con­fer­ence this Octo­ber. Head to crana​con​fer​ence​.com to find out more and register.