McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Seniors' sensitive to community characteristics

Published: June 21, 2006
Paul Masotti and Robert Fick
Paul Masotti, principal investigator on the research project, and Robert Fick, second author.

Municipal governments can play a key role in facilitating a low-cost approach to keeping seniors healthier, and thereby reduce their need for costly health care services, according to a research paper published by the American Journal of Public Health.

The paper suggests that communities with a high concentration of seniors should include various municipally-controlled characteristics that would have a positive impact on the social and physical well-being of its residents.

Suggestions include well-maintained sidewalks, intersections with longer green and yellow lights, measures that decrease the speed and frequency of traffic, adding bicycles lanes and allowing the use of non-licensed, personal electronic vehicles or golf carts, more and better parks with benches or tables, property tax concessions for seniors and zoning changes to allow walking-distance access to needed goods and services.

The paper is based on information obtained through research and statistical analysis involving the demographics of "naturally occurring retirement communities," or NORCs, which are broadly defined as neighbourhoods where individuals either remain or move to when they retire.

The paper was written by Paul Masotti, a part-time faculty member with McMaster University’s Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics who was the principal investigator on the research project. Second author is Robert Fick, a research assistant formerly with the Centre for Evaluation of Medicines at McMaster, and now with the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Analysis.

With the growing number of seniors in North America, the prevalence of NORCs is likely to increase dramatically, and it is anticipated that the aging population will impose serious stresses on the health care system.

However, the authors contend that steps taken to create "healthy NORCs" could have a significant lifestyle impact on seniors, prompting them to stay healthier for a longer time, and reducing their reliance on the health care system.

"Some NORC environments are healthier than others for seniors, because the NORC environment has characteristics associated with better health for seniors," said Masotti, who is also a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston. "Health benefits within healthy NORCs are higher where physical and social environments facilitate greater activity and promote feelings of well-being.

"Compared to the provision of additional medical or social services, healthy NORCs are a low-cost community-level approach to facilitating healthy aging."

The research paper, based largely on U.S. data, contends that while health care remains a much more prominent political topic, there is a "large body of research that suggests that physical and social environments may play the most important role in determining the health of populations."

And, since seniors spend more time in their communities, it is likely their health is more sensitive to community characteristics.

Municipal governments are well-positioned to make existing NORCs healthier, states the paper.
"Generally, the changes must embrace the basic needs of residents. They should encourage healthy behaviours, recreational activities, social interactions and community involvement."

The full research paper can be seen at

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