Wellness Matters

A National Institute on Aging report, 65+ in the United States: 2005, finds that today's older Americans are very different from those of previous generations. They're living longer, have lower rates of disability, achieved higher levels of education and are much less likely to be living in poverty. Changes are also evident in family structures because of the higher divorce rate. The report also identifies some positive trends that indicate we've made progress in improving the health and well-being of people age 65+:

  • The United States population age 65 and over is expected to double within the next 25 years.
  • The health of older Americans is improving, although many still suffer from chronic conditions.
  • The financial circumstances of older people have improved dramatically, although income and wealth continue to vary widely.
  • The states with the highest percentage of people age 65+ include Florida (17.6 percent), Pennsylvania (15.6 percent) and West Virginia (15.3 percent).
  • Higher levels of education, which are linked to better health, higher income, more wealth and a higher standard of living in retirement, will continue to increase for those 65+.
  • As the United States increases in diversity, older Americans will also become increasingly diverse.
  • Changes in the American family have significant implications for the future of aging.

The United States is experiencing a dramatic demographic change with the aging of the baby boomer generation. This demographic change will have a huge impact on health care. Currently, Americans over age 50 comprise 27 percent of the population. By 2010, it's anticipated that 50+-year-olds will make up 32 percent of the population. In Connecting to the Healthcare Consumer (McGraw-Hill, 2000), author David Nash notes that you can count on these aging baby boomers to increase the demand on health-related information and care.

Obviously, these 76 million baby boomers will place tremendous demands on Medicare, and they'll expect support from professional caregivers and children alike. According to the NIA report, 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and a full 50 percent suffer from two or more chronic health conditions.

But enough of this not-so-good medical news. Boomers refuse to accept the aging process passively. This "transformational generation" wants to challenge the grow old/lose your health paradigm. With the economic might of $7 trillion in wealth, boomers will spend money on better health. During the next 10 years alone, it's predicted that boomers will increase their wellness spending from $200 billion to $1 trillion or more.

Interestingly, boomers feel younger than their chronological age. A recent Los Angeles Times survey found that Americans over age 60 feel 19 years younger than their chronological age. Further, 36 percent of older people lived in poverty in 1965, compared with only 10 percent today. Educational levels have also improved for the older population compared to previous generations

The Cornell Retirement and Well-Being study finds that newly retired people report a significant increase in energy after they retire.

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging by the National Institute on Aging Gerontology Research Center (nia.nih.gov) has prompted scientists to look at aging differently. The BLSA results show that many of the declines associated with aging are the result of aging-related diseases. Therefore, aging is separate from disease, and people have some control over the rate of decline they experience over time.

Baby boomers hate terms like "elderly," "old" or "senior." They prefer "experienced," "wise," "mature," "seasoned," "enduring" and "engaged." And, with the many recent medical breakthroughs, it looks as though boomers could feel young at 80.

Let's further explore facts that counter stereotypes that surround "old age:"

  • People aged 50--75 see their latter years as a "time to begin a new chapter"
  • They intend to stay active, involved and engaged in new learning and goals
  • Affluent baby boomers are inclined to view the retirement years as a time to find new challenges
  • People who are socially, economically and civically engaged are more satisfied and live longer
  • Older Americans who believe they have the ability to influence events and be in control of their outcomes are more positive about aging
  • Increased self-reliance is important in improving productivity for these older citizens

Consider that 70 percent of deaths are lifestyle-related--heart attacks, strokes, common cancers and diabetes. With a healthy lifestyle, an estimated 50 percent of these early deaths could be prevented. Let's examine the critical components of a healthy lifestyle--exercise, diet/nutrition, stress reduction, positive attitude, emotional health, cognitive stimulation and social connectedness.

Exercise

The importance of exercise in preserving your physical, cognitive and emotional well-being is well known. In fact, according to Dr. Gary Small in The Longevity Bible, "recent research found that regular physical activity could add two or more years to an individual's life expectancy." Doctors now recommend that adults exercise six days a week. However, only 40 percent of adults in the United States get the recommended levels of physical activity.

Diet and Nutrition

Nutrition is an important ingredient in wellness. As Dr. Gary Small puts it in The Longevity Bible, "Longitudinal studies have found a diet that emphasizes the right food choices and helps people stay at their target body weight can increase survival rates by 50 percent or more."

New recommendations state:

  • Eat three servings of fruits
  • Eat four servings of vegetables every day
  • Eat nine servings of whole grains each day
  • Drink at least eight glasses of water daily
  • Avoid drinking both sugar and diet sodas

Although vitamins and other supplements may prove beneficial, don't substitute them for a nutritious diet.

Stress Reduction

How healthy is chronic stress? "A 20-year study of approximately 13,000 people found that chronic stress increased the risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease," Dr. Gary Small writes. "Stress has been shown to undermine our immune system, which diminishes our ability to fight off colds and infections."

Stress-reduction techniques include:

  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Visualization
  • Breathing exercises
  • Massage/Touch

Sleep provides the recharging you need to stay physically and mentally alert. Everyone needs to find the best tools to manage stress

Attitude

Most people have heard the saying "you're as old as you think you are." Studies support the contention that attitude is as important to longevity as your physical condition. The connection between stress and illness is clear.
Consider some of these "remedies" to old age:

  • Mental toughness
  • Optimism
  • Sense of humor.

Cognitive and Emotional Health

The NIH Cognitive and Emotional Health Project reports that approximately 4.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and millions more experience cognitive impairment that worsens with age. In terms of emotional health, an estimated two million older Americans suffer from depression. This research also finds that cognitive health and emotional well-being are "inextricably linked."

According to the NIH study, some of the important factors affecting cognitive and emotional health include:

  • Education
  • Cardiovascular
  • Psychosocial
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Physical activity
  • Chronic illness
  • Genetics

The MacArthur Foundation study, Successful Aging, finds that retirees who exercise strenuously are more likely to maintain high cognitive functioning.

Scientific evidence supports the theory that, when you push yourself to solve problems in a new way, your cognitive functioning improves. Dr. Gary Small points to a study published in the journal Nature showing that "three months of mental training can alter the brain structure and, in essence, build brain muscle."

Social Connectedness

When it comes to physical and emotional well-being after age 50, social connections matter. A study by the University of Michigan has found that psychological well-being fluctuates with retirees. The research investigated eight variables affecting well-being including physical health, income level, traumatic life experiences, age and gender. The most powerful predictor for life satisfaction after retirement, according to the study, is the extent of a person's social network--not health or wealth. A social network is more important for new retirees than working adults. The University of Michigan study cited earlier stresses that connections lost because of retirement should be replaced.

Prevention

Prevention is the name of the game when it comes to the diseases and disorders that strike people over age 50. The basic prevention rules are pretty simple:

  • Don't smoke
  • Avoid secondhand smoke
  • Watch your weight and diet
  • Exercise regularly and vigorously

To recap, the MacArthur Foundation study on Successful Aging identifies three essential components for successful aging

  • Staying mentally and physically active
  • Avoiding disease
  • Actively engaging in life

This long-term, multidisciplinary research program looks at genetic, biomedical, behavioral and social factors determining how we age. The results destroy at least two myths about aging:

  • Illness accompanies aging
  • Mental capacity diminishes with age

Prevention is the name of the game when it comes to the diseases and disorders that strike people over age 50. The basic prevention rules are pretty simple:

  • Don't smoke
  • Avoid secondhand smoke
  • Watch your weight and diet
  • Exercise regularly and vigorously

To recap, the MacArthur Foundation study on Successful Aging identifies three essential components for successful aging:

  • Staying mentally and physically active
  • Avoiding disease
  • Actively engaging in life

This long-term, multidisciplinary research program looks at genetic, biomedical, behavioral and social factors determining how we age. The results destroy at least two myths about aging:

  • Illness accompanies aging
  • Mental capacity diminishes with age