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Associate Professor Dafna Merom from the School of Science and Health is passionate about keeping people healthy, active and out of hospital – that's no mean feat, when you consider that we have an ageing population whose rates of chronic illness are increasing as they get older.
Dafna has been working in the field of public health for over 25 years, and is particularly focused on how a physically active lifestyle can help prevent and manage age-related chronic diseases and disabilities such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, and mental illness.
She is a leading researcher in Western Sydney University's emerging public health discipline – which was recently rated "above world standard" in the latest Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) report.
Together with her colleagues from across the University, she is using Western Sydney's unique challenges and advantages to improve public health nation-wide.
She's about to undertake a major research project with her colleagues and funding partner, Western Sydney Partners in Recovery, to trial a sustainable physical health program to be used in sub-acute mental health rehabilitation units.
As it stands, Australian's suffering from a mental illness are at a high risk of physical health complications like metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of medical conditions that put these patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
"Metabolic syndrome, particularly obesity, is exacerbated by the side effects of antipsychotic medications, so we want to develop an approach to treating mental illness that also incorporates increased physical activity and long-term healthy eating habits into the rehabilitation process, while patients are still in hospital. Then we'll continue to watch their health through the physical activity laboratory based at the University, " Dafna says.
Clearly, preventative health through active lifestyle is a big focus for Dafna. She is also a big advocate for successful ageing and keeping older Australians active –physically, socially and mentally.
She has carried out numerous research studies investigating how activities such walking, swimming and dancing can help improve fall-related risk factors in older Australians, such as balance and gait, as well as physical activity's role in preventing cognitive decline.
In fact, her longitudinal study of over 1600 older Australian men as part of the Concord Health and Ageing in Men Project discovered that swimming, in particular, helped protect older men from falls, with swimmers experiencing significantly lower postural sway, and consequently, a lower incidence of falls.
She says it is possible that a swimmer's technique – maintaining a horizontal body position in the water, avoiding drag by using their core muscles – may be what leads to improved balance. Which is why she's about to launch another in-depth study to explore this interesting phenomenon in further detail.
"Fall-related injuries are a major contributor to lengthy hospital stays for older people and significantly increases their morbidity rate. If we can improve stability, gait and balance among older Australians, then we can keep them out of hospital, which is a great result for everyone."