We have known for years that demographic changes are producing an ageing society, but little strategic attention has been paid to promoting the health and well-being of older people in local communities.

The Health Education Authority has endeavoured nationally to secure a stronger profile for this neglected sector, and started to develop projects - particularly in the field of falls prevention and physical activity. In addition, the Better Government for Older People initiative is raising local awareness.

But there is a lot to learn before health authorities and trusts succeed in establishing projects suitable for older people. Primary health and community care workers will be on a steep learning curve to better understand how to involve older people in health improvement projects.

Local policy makers have to wake up to the importance of earlier investment in older people's health. Longer-term health benefits for older people will require good financial planning and holistic health support systems in the statutory sectors sooner rather than later. It will be important to look not just at the frail 'elderly' but to invest in projects for people of 50 and over.

In 1996, 31 per cent of the population was aged over 50; by 2026 it will be 41 per cent. Numbers living alone will continue to increase from 58 per cent of women and 31 per cent of men over 75 in 1996. Plenty of figures make a strong case for more preventive work in this important sector.

I have been awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to look at health promotion strategies for people over 50, particularly good practice and evidence of what works. I intend to gain first-hand knowledge in the US and Canada, and later Australia, of community health programmes and multi-sectoral approaches, as well as specialised projects to include accident prevention in older people's homes.

I will be interested to hear from anyone who is keen to learn of the outcomes of my field trip or would like me to look out for something specific which could help them.

Loraine Ashton

Public health specialist

(former HEA programme manager for older people)

phone: 01705 293202 fax: 01705-293203 e-mail: alsacela@aol.com