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Ambassadors volunteer to promote healthy aging


Community health "ambassador" Mary C. Rossi, 62, took what she learned about exercise and nutrition to a group of nuns in Elizabeth Township, whom she helps lead in a three-times-weekly class.

Another ambassador, 73-year-old Jim Shore of Peters, writes tips on healthy aging in the newsletter he distributes to members of his 60-and-older golf league.

One more, Donna Sebastian, 60, of Belle-vue, uses her new knowledge of a sound diet to tout its benefits to others in the senior center art class she attends.

They're among more than 100 aging ambassadors in the past year to complete free six-week courses offered to adults 50 and older by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Healthy Aging. The courses, offered at various community centers and Community College of Allegheny County locations, are designed both to educate the participants and empower them as volunteers, spreading the gospel of 10 keys to healthy aging to their friends, relatives, neighbors and others in their communities.

"If I can just help one person lead a longer, healthier life, I'm glad I'm doing this," said 83-year-old Roslyn Phillips of White Oak, who speaks at clubs and community meetings. She carries a card showing her smiling photo, with a designation as "community health ambassador" under her name and phone number.

The program is overseen by the Center for Healthy Aging, which organized it in 2005 to make use of various research findings which might otherwise just be sitting in a brochure on someone's shelf, said Dr. Connie Bayles, the center's director.

Participants' health is evaluated through blood tests, blood pressure screenings, cholesterol measurements and other means before the course starts and a year later, as part of a research project to determine whether what they learn makes a difference to their health.

If the program works as designed, their own health improves and they also pass along to many others what they've learned about the 10 keys: maintaining social contacts; combating depression; increasing physical activity; stopping smoking; preventing bone loss; participating in cancer screenings, getting regular immunizations, lowering LDL cholesterol, controlling systolic blood pressure; and regulating blood glucose.

Those recommendations aren't new to the health care field, but they were packaged together by the center in a formal course after research findings from a study of 541 older adults in McKeesport, Dr. Bayles said.

"Our view is you don't become healthy by changing one behavior, it has to be a multitude of things," Dr. Bayles said. Everyone knows it's good to quit smoking cigarettes or to do regular exercise, for instance, but the 10 keys remind people that steps such as annual immunizations and cancer screenings can help reduce illness or the severity of disease.

The participants generally learn about two keys per two-hour class, and have homework assignments to reinforce the teaching. They're supposed to apply what they learn to themselves each week, and also discuss it with someone else in the community.

Graduates gather periodically, if they like, to cover new material, such as a meeting in Oakland last week where 20 gathered to learn about alcohol problems and how they might assist individuals they believe are drinking excessively. They were advised to become informal counselors, who can take more time talking to people they know about such issues, since health professionals are often so rushed when dealing with patients.

"As health ambassadors, you can move people to just think about their problem ... motivate them to change their behavior," suggested Dr. Adam Gordon, an addiction specialist at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine. "Give them positive reinforcement af

4/13/2007
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