February 11, 2015
Aging Boomers: A Sadly Unwelcome Health Prognosis for Many
BY Mary Mahoney
Part I of the blog will look at what challenges and solutions exist for America’s booming senior citizenry. Part II will explore what we can do in the 50-65 age bracket to better prepare for older old age.
“Never before has the global population included as many older adults as it does today.” That statement was made in an editorial written by Lynda Anderson PhD, for the American Journal of Public Health. The fact that the world population is getting older has many repercussions for society and the economy. It’s an issue that we are only beginning to tackle.
As program director for Healthy Aging at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Anderson keeps a close watch on the demographics, habits and challenges of this rapidly growing population segment. According to a recent U.S. census, the 65+ population will double to almost 84 million in the next 30 years. That means one in five people will be senior citizens. Dr. Anderson adds that people 85 and older represent “the fastest growing group.”
While living a longer life is sounds like good news, the bad news is that we may be living longer in surprisingly bad health, according to an extensive 2013 study Anderson authored called The State of Health Aging in America.
With a household trend indicating more and more people living alone – away from the support of other family members – longevity can be daunting. What Anderson hears from seniors themselves are concerns centered around loss of independence. These include safety issues – both in terms of navigating the community and personal safety – and lack of mobility.
Loss of independence is part of a cascading effect, with precipitating factors that include physical inactivity, poor nutrition, and unchecked chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
Managing multiple chronic conditions in particular is a tremendous challenge. In the last 100 years, the leading causes of death have changed, from infectious disease and acute illness to chronic diseases and degenerative illnesses (heart disease and cancer have remained constant threats.) We are struggling to keep up with this shift and the resulting socioeconomic impact.
According to the U.S. Department for Health & Human Services, 95% of health care costs for older Americans are attributed to multiple chronic conditions. And the budgetary burden will be significant: Medicare spending is expected to double between 2011 and 2020.
As the population becomes older, Alzheimer’s disease also will be on the rise. It already is the sixth leading cause of death among adults aged 18 years and older. By 2050, approximately 10 million seniors will have this form of dementia. “By the time you are in your 80s, you may have survived certain things like some cancers or manageable heart conditions, for which there is now much better treatment than there was 50 years ago,” says Anderson. “Alzheimer’s is the next big challenge.”
In response, the CDC created The Healthy Brain Initiative 2013-2018, a road map to address Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline. Another campaign, Healthy People 2020 was launched in 2010 and proposes health goals to be met within a decade. It has numerous suggestions for simple, inexpensive forms of preventive care like getting flu and pneumonia vaccines and calls for increasing physical activity.
But progress towards reaching the goals of Healthy People 2020 has been mixed. Some places, like Henderson County, North Carolina, are implanting long-term strategies to create more pedestrian- and senior-friendly environments and communities. More organizations such as the YMCA have exercise classes geared towards the booming elderly population. These initiatives could go a long way to maintaining mobility and independence.
But one factor is that is it very difficult for a sedentary person to suddenly begin a fairly rigorous exercise routine at, say, age 70. And if you have had untreated high cholesterol or high blood pressure, chances are you may have a stroke or heart attack before you hit age 65. Likewise, the numbers of breast cancer or colon cancers in the age bracket 50-65 is high enough to suggest taking action years before you hit retirement age.
Smoking, universally considered a health hazard, is actually not a common cause of death for seniors. As Anderson explains, “you don’t see too many smoking-related deaths past age 80 because chances are those people have already died from smoking-related diseases long before.”
The CDC study concludes by saying, “Unfortunately, current data on health-related behaviors among people aged 55-64 do not indicate a positive future for the health of older Americans.”
This should be a call to action for baby boomers to improve their chances for a healthier old age by starting now.