On November 11, 2021, our colleague David van Bodegom delivered his inaugural lecture as professor of ‘Vitality in an ageing population’ at the Leiden University Medical Center, Department of Public Health and Primary Care. The chair was established by Leyden Academy.
According to David, the key to healthy and vital ageing lies in our living environment. He therefore argues in favour of changing our living environment in the fight against lifestyle-related disorders instead of making individual citizens feel guilty. “So-called ‘aging diseases’ such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease are a huge problem in the Netherlands. While they can partly be prevented or remedied with a healthy lifestyle,” says David. But in an environment where we sit in our office for hours and have access to unhealthy food at any time of the day, healthy behaviour is difficult to maintain, according to David. “Our environment makes us sick, so we have to deal with that.”
The environment guides choices
David illustrates by means of a personal example that the offer in the environment guides our choices. “Since there is a bowl of apples next to the coffee machine at work, I eat a lot more apples. Not because I want to or because someone told me to, but simply because it’s there. So if we change our environment, our behaviour will follow naturally. In this way it is more pleasant and more promising to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”
Beyond the consulting room
Healthcare is just not geared up for this yet, David notes. “Prescribing medicines pays more in the current system than discussing a healthy lifestyle with the patient.” Fortunately, he sees that there is a movement in this area. “I notice especially among young doctors and medical students that lifestyle is becoming increasingly important. They look beyond the consulting room.” The National Prevention Agreement and the inclusion of combined lifestyle interventions in the basic healthcare package are also steps in the right direction, according to the professor. “But we have not won the battle yet.”
To promote the vitality of older persons, David and colleagues at Leyden Academy founded the Vitality Club. These are groups of older neighbours who exercise together a few times a week, entirely on their own initiative and therefore without professional supervision. “These clubs are a great success. Participants come to participate for their health, but keep coming back for the fun. This shows that the social aspect is important. The elderly coach each other to stay healthy.” The next step is to investigate whether this form of peer coaching also works for people with type 2 diabetes. In an initiative in Leiden a lifestyle program was recently set up for this purpose. “We are going to investigate whether such an alternative referral process can yield health benefits and can relieve the burden on healthcare in a sustainable way.”
In the coming years, David and his colleagues want to take the movement in lifestyle medicine even further. “There is still much to be gained in health for older persons. To make this happen, we need to shift our focus from the individual to the population.”