During the current century, worldwide number of older adults will surpass the number of children. There are now more Americans age 65 and older today than at any other time in U.S. history. This number will swell to more than 98 million by 2060. And it is not as if we didn't know this "boom" was coming. Yet responsive aging policies to ensure that longer life spans are valued remain in short supply.
If we are going to address our needs as a nation today and into the future, then we need to start with a big attitude adjustment.
This point is well stated in a current editorial in the New York Times by Louise Aronson, a professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. As professor Aronson points out, the medical community tends to divide life span into just two main categories — childhood and adulthood. She believes it is time we add another category to the list — "oldhood." Life is a three-act play, she reminds us, and it is time our medical system reflected that truth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vaccine guidelines are but one example of such short sightedness. "Americans 65 and older — including the two fastest-growing segments of our population, the 80-to-90-year-olds and those over 100 — are lumped in a single group, as if bodies and behaviors don't change over the last half-century of life," she writes.
The vaccine guidelines lists 17 sub groupings for children from birth through age 18 and it makes perfect sense. We would never confuse toddlers with teenagers, or young adults. Each group is not only different socially, but biologically. The same can be said of the difference between 70-year-olds from the nonagenarians a generation ahead of them. As a result, Aronson believes it is very likely that we are incorrectly vaccinating a significant number of the 47 million Americans over 65.
Treatment plans in general are not at all as nuanced for people over 65 as they are for those below senior status. For a number of reasons, older Americans tend to be excluded from clinical studies. Though it is a fact that the speed and extent of aging varies widely, rarely do treatment plans target older adults' specific physiology. There are different risk-benefit ratios for older adults than other groups. These differences matter, both for immunizations and in health care in general, says Aronson. The sad fact is that care providers frequently do not know how to best care for the old.
"Insurance companies continue to pay top dollar for questionable, useless and even harmful care for older people," she concludes. "Money that could be spent on more effective care."
At least a decade before a person enters official senior citizenry, their balance will begin to decline.
It is yet another area where an attitude adjustment is needed. A decline in balance can lead to a fall and falls are the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths among older adults. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than a third of people 65 and over suffer a fall each year. Medication side effects are considered a leading cause of falls. Although falls increase with age, they are not an inevitable part of aging.
One organization, Healthy Aging Partnerships, a coalition of more than 30 nonprofit, government and community organizations has implemented a program to address this health hazard. Called "Standing Strong," it teaches balance training, incorporating the use of elastic resistance bands to improve strength in the lower extremities and foam pads that provide an unsteady surface that challenges the body to maintain balance. Participants who completed the program improved balance by 82 percent and decreased their fall rate from 58 percent to 16 percent, according to the center's research.
June Simmons, voted as one of 2016 Influencers in Aging by Next Avenue magazine, recently noted that nearly 91 percent of older adults today have at least one chronic condition. As many as 73 percent have at least two. She believes that teaching these people skills to stabilize and improve health is one of the most powerful strategies available for improving their quality of life and controlling health care expenditures. She calls this approach "person-centered care" treatment.
Similarly, a number of community-based organizations are now providing "health coaches," assigning them to high-risk patients recently discharged from the hospital. One community group, Care Transitions, has been designated Area Agency for Aging for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties in Florida. Care Transitions helps build health self-management skills, as well as review medication use — two areas identified as critical in preventing a worsening condition. These health coaches have dramatically reduced 30-day hospital readmissions, ER visits and the associated distress for patients and their families. This five-year initiative expects to generate more than $7 million in savings each year from avoided re-hospitalizations.
What the above program clearly demonstrates is that we have unprecedented opportunities to redefine the aging experience and the way we deal with it; to make the commitment to afford older adults the opportunity to age well, increasing their independence and dignity.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.