According to national statistics, in the next 20 years the number of Americans older than 65 will double to 71 million. That is more than one in five Americans.
While much remains to be learned about optimal health and the management of age-related disorders, the aging U.S. population will bring age-related health concerns to the forefront in the coming years.
For many older Americans, paying attention to a few basic lifestyle issues can yield dividends in the form of longer, more enjoyable lives.
Chronic illness accounts for the majority of disease burden and death among older people. Yet more than 40 percent of deaths from chronic illness are preventable through lifestyle modification in four key areas:
- Regular physical activity.
- Maintaining a proper diet.
- Smoking cessation.
- Reduction of excess alcohol intake.
These are the true secrets to a longer, healthier life for older Americans.
As one example, walking as little as 30 minutes per day can lower blood-pressure, improve cardiovascular health, improve blood sugars, strengthen the immune system, decrease arthritis pain and improve mood. Talk about a fountain of youth. Yet studies show that by age 75, nearly one in three men and one-half of women are physically inactive.
Similarly, it has been shown that consuming a low-fat diet and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily can reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis, even later in life.
Mental health is another important issue for older people. Studies have shown that more than 20 percent of older Americans suffer from depression, and nearly one in four experience cognitive declines with associated forgetfulness.
Often, these conditions are mistaken for the normal changes of aging, though they are not.
In addition to specific medical therapies, studies have shown that regular physical activity, blood pressure control and engaging in social activities can improve mental health among the elderly.
Infectious diseases are another preventable cause of illness among the elderly.
Influenza and pneumonia rank among the top 10 causes of death among people older than age 65. Yet for many, these illnesses can be prevented through routine vaccination. Annual influenza vaccination is strongly recommended for elderly Americans. Pneumonia vaccination, administered once after age 65, can significantly reduce the risk of many of the most common strains of bacterial pneumonia.
Falls are the leading cause of injury among elderly Americans, with nearly one in three older people sustaining a fall each year. Many falls result in fractures, with hip fracture occurring in more than 250,000 people older than 65 each year. Yet falls can be prevented through careful review and elimination of many common prescription and over-the-counter medications that cause imbalance and through home modifications, including installation of grab bars in bathrooms or improved lighting and removal of floor items that can cause elderly people to trip.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Southern Ute Health Center in Ignacio.