New view on health among the elderly

Professor Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya, research director at the Human Sciences Research Council

Professor Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya, research director at the Human Sciences Research Council

National-level health studies in South Africa have historically focused on younger age populations. Smaller samples of elderly people have previously produced limited cross-nationally comparable data and used limited objective measures of health.

Consequently, there has not been sufficient data to accurately, reliably and equitably inform policy formulation and programming. This is in spite of the unprecedented growth in the numbers of individuals aged 50+ in South Africa.

Against this background, epidemiologist Professor Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya and her team, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Department of Health (DoH), conducted a large-scale national study that expanded the 2002 and 2003 World Health Survey, the Study on global AGEing and adult health (Sage Wave 1) in South Africa. Phaswana-Mafuya is research director at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

WHO and the DoH co-funded Sage together with the Division of Behavioural and Social Research at the United States National Institute on Ageing. The HSRC encourages collaborative partnerships with other scholars or institutions in the execution of large-scale, policy relevant and development focused research.

Sage was strategically conducted to close the existing data gap by providing specific, valid, cross-nationally comparable and richer baseline data at a sufficient scale on the health and wellbeing of older adults. It incorporated national level indicators never measured before and rigorous novel scientific methods never used in combination before in any one national survey, upon which policies, social protection mechanisms and subsequent Sage surveys can be based.

Phaswana-Mafuya served as the principal investigator for Sage Wave 1. She co-designed the study and its tools, executed the survey (training, fieldwork, quality control, and laboratory work), and oversaw data entry and management processes, report writing and dissemination of findings in South Africa.

Sage has improved the empirical understanding of the health status of older South Africans. It generated data on key national indicators. It also offered unique opportunities for analysis of complex ageing issues, resulting in over 200 publications.

The study improved understanding of the health of older South Africans in comparison to other countries. It was also conducted in India, China, Mexico, Russia and Ghana. Sage has drawn attention to the problems of hypertension and multi-morbidity, which hadn’t received much visibility before. Sage also informed national and international strategies and estimates.

The study’s findings have far reaching implications in terms of substantial health gains and cost savings. The economic benefits of a healthier and longer life are almost immeasurable. As health care costs become increasingly unaffordable, prevention is a critical, feasible, efficient, affordable and cost-saving approach.

Phaswana-Mafuya continues to investigate multiple morbidities among this elderly cohort in order to determine trends and patterns that can lead to sustainable public health interventions.