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I had the pleasure of presenting at a public education session on the new health reform law in Las Vegas recently sponsored by Families USA, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), and the National Council on Aging (NCOA). At that conference, I realized that what we normally talk about when we discuss health care is “sick” care. Our US health care system centers around acute illness care, rather than keeping people healthy. However, within the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, prevention and earlier detection of chronic conditions could transform our health care system.

If all Americans took scientifically recommended action to prevent heart disease, the number of heart attacks would be cut by two-thirds, the number of strokes would be cut one-third, and life expectancy would increase by 1.3 years. If we would stop smoking, get screened for cancer, eat healthy food, and exercise regularly, the amount of cancer deaths could be cut by sixty percent. If Americans had moderate weight loss, diabetes would be cut by over fifty percent.

How novel, to have a focus on prevention of illness in a “health” care plan. The new law makes many preventive services affordable by requiring health plans to cover them this September, with no deductibles or co-payments. Don’t you think that we would also save dollars, as well as lives.

So what can we do?  Exercise, eat well, receive preventive clinical services, exercise your brain, recognize and treat depression, and educate and support the caregiving role.

Benefits of Exercise:  Like most people, you’ve probably heard that physical activity and exercise are good for you. In fact, being physically active on a regular basis is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. Studies have shown that exercise provides many health benefits and that elders can gain a lot by staying physically active. Even moderate exercise can improve the health of people who are frail or who have chronic disease. Being physically active can also help you stay strong and fit enough to keep doing the things you like to do as you get older. Making physical activity a regular part of your life can improve your health and help you maintain your independence.

Inactive older adults become weak in four areas that are important for staying healthy and independent: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Research suggests that you can maintain or at least partially restore these four areas through exercise and physical activity and that doing so improves fitness. Endurance, or aerobic activities like brisk walking or swimming increase your breathing and heart rate. Strength exercises like lifting weights and using resistance bands can increase muscle strength. Lower-body strength exercises also will improve your balance. Balance exercises like tai chi can improve your ability to control and maintain your body’s position. Good balance is important to help prevent falls and avoid the disability that may result from falling. Stretching can help your body stay flexible and limber, which gives you more freedom of movement for your regular physical activity as well as for your everyday activities.

Eating Well: Eating a well-planned, balanced mix of foods every day has many health benefits. For instance, eating well may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, bone loss, some kinds of cancer, and anemia. If you already have one or more of these chronic diseases, eating well and being physically active may help you better manage them. Healthy eating may also help you reduce high blood pressure, lower high cholesterol, and manage diabetes. Studies show that a good diet in your later years reduces your risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain cancers. To eat well:

  • Choose a variety of healthy foods;
  • Avoid empty calories, which are foods with lots of calories but few nutrients, such as chips, cookies, soda and alcohol; and
  • Pick foods that are low in cholesterol and fat, especially saturated and trans fats.

Preventive Clinical Services: There are a core set of recommended preventive services that are very effective in preventing disease or detecting disease early. Among these services are screening for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers, and vaccinations against influenza and pneumococcal disease.

Despite the effectiveness of these potentially life-saving preventive services, only one-quarter of adults aged 50 to 64 years in the United States, and fewer than forty percent of adults aged 65 years and older are up to date on these services.

Cognitive health: Is a vital part of healthy aging and quality of life. Cognition is a combination of mental processes that includes the ability to learn new things, intuition, judgment, language, and remembering. The lack of cognitive health—from mild cognitive decline to dementia—can have profound implications for an individual’s health and well-being. Elders and others experiencing cognitive decline may be unable to care for themselves or to conduct necessary activities of daily living, such as meal preparation and money management. Limitations with the ability to effectively manage medications and existing medical conditions are particular concerns when an individual is experiencing cognitive decline or dementia. If cognitive decline can be prevented or better treated, quality of life improves.

Depression: Is a true and treatable medical condition, not a normal part of aging. However elders are at an increased risk for experiencing depression. If you are concerned about a loved one, offer to go with him or her to see a health care provider to be diagnosed and treated. Depression is not just having “the blues” or the emotions we feel when grieving the loss of a loved one. It is a true medical condition that is treatable, like diabetes or hypertension.

The good news is that the majority of elders are not depressed. Some estimates of major depression in elders living in the community range from less than 1% to about 5%.

Caregiving:  Caregiver demand is driven by the steady increase in our elder population and functional impairment.  As the number of elders rise, so does the number of needed caregivers. The number of people 65 years old and older in the U.S. is expected to rise by over 100% between 2000 and 2030, at a rate of 2.3% each year, with Nevada even higher.  Unfortunately, however, over that same 30-year period the number of family members who are available to provide care for these older adults is expected to increase by only 25%, at a rate of 0.8% per year.

Caregiving exerts a tremendous toll on caregivers’ health and well-being, and accounts for significant costs to families and society as well. Family caregiving has been associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety, as well as higher use of psychoactive medications, poorer self-reported physical health, compromised immune function, and increased mortality. Over half of caregivers indicate that their decline in health compromises their ability to provide care.

So in order to age in a healthful manner and add life to our years, we should: exercise, eat well, receive preventive clinical services, exercise your brain, recognize and treat depression, and educate and support the caregiving role.

Healthy Aging: What is it and what can we do?

I had the pleasure of presenting at a public education session on the new health reform law in Las Vegas recently sponsored by Families USA, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), and the National Council on Aging (NCOA). At that conference, I realized that what we normally talk about when we discuss health care is “sick” care. Our US health care system centers around acute illness care, rather than keeping people healthy. However, within the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, prevention and earlier detection of chronic conditions could transform our health care system.

If all Americans took scientifically recommended action to prevent heart disease, the number of heart attacks would be cut by two-thirds, the number of strokes would be cut one-third, and life expectancy would increase by 1.3 years. If we would stop smoking, get screened for cancer, eat healthy food, and exercise regularly, the amount of cancer deaths could be cut by sixty percent. If Americans had moderate weight loss, diabetes would be cut by over fifty percent.

How novel, to have a focus on prevention of illness in a “health” care plan. The new law makes many preventive services affordable by requiring health plans to cover them this September, with no deductibles or co-payments. Don’t you think that we would also save dollars, as well as lives.

So what can we do?  Exercise, eat well, receive preventive clinical services, exercise your brain, recognize and treat depression, and educate and support the caregiving role.

Benefits of Exercise:  Like most people, you’ve probably heard that physical activity and exercise are good for you. In fact, being physically active on a regular basis is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. Studies have shown that exercise provides many health benefits and that elders can gain a lot by staying physically active. Even moderate exercise can improve the health of people who are frail or who have chronic disease. Being physically active can also help you stay strong and fit enough to keep doing the things you like to do as you get older. Making physical activity a regular part of your life can improve your health and help you maintain your independence.

Inactive older adults become weak in four areas that are important for staying healthy and independent: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Research suggests that you can maintain or at least partially restore these four areas through exercise and physical activity and that doing so improves fitness. Endurance, or aerobic activities like brisk walking or swimming increase your breathing and heart rate. Strength exercises like lifting weights and using resistance bands can increase muscle strength. Lower-body strength exercises also will improve your balance. Balance exercises like tai chi can improve your ability to control and maintain your body’s position. Good balance is important to help prevent falls and avoid the disability that may result from falling. Stretching can help your body stay flexible and limber, which gives you more freedom of movement for your regular physical activity as well as for your everyday activities.

Eating Well: Eating a well-planned, balanced mix of foods every day has many health benefits. For instance, eating well may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, bone loss, some kinds of cancer, and anemia. If you already have one or more of these chronic diseases, eating well and being physically active may help you better manage them. Healthy eating may also help you reduce high blood pressure, lower high cholesterol, and manage diabetes. Studies show that a good diet in your later years reduces your risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain cancers. To eat well:

  • Choose a variety of healthy foods;
  • Avoid empty calories, which are foods with lots of calories but few nutrients, such as chips, cookies, soda and alcohol; and
  • Pick foods that are low in cholesterol and fat, especially saturated and trans fats.

Preventive Clinical Services: There are a core set of recommended preventive services that are very effective in preventing disease or detecting disease early. Among these services are screening for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers, and vaccinations against influenza and pneumococcal disease.

Despite the effectiveness of these potentially life-saving preventive services, only one-quarter of adults aged 50 to 64 years in the United States, and fewer than forty percent of adults aged 65 years and older are up to date on these services.

Cognitive health: Is a vital part of healthy aging and quality of life. Cognition is a combination of mental processes that includes the ability to learn new things, intuition, judgment, language, and remembering. The lack of cognitive health—from mild cognitive decline to dementia—can have profound implications for an individual’s health and well-being. Elders and others experiencing cognitive decline may be unable to care for themselves or to conduct necessary activities of daily living, such as meal preparation and money management. Limitations with the ability to effectively manage medications and existing medical conditions are particular concerns when an individual is experiencing cognitive decline or dementia. If cognitive decline can be prevented or better treated, quality of life improves.

Depression: Is a true and treatable medical condition, not a normal part of aging. However elders are at an increased risk for experiencing depression. If you are concerned about a loved one, offer to go with him or her to see a health care provider to be diagnosed and treated. Depression is not just having “the blues” or the emotions we feel when grieving the loss of a loved one. It is a true medical condition that is treatable, like diabetes or hypertension.

The good news is that the majority of elders are not depressed. Some estimates of major depression in elders living in the community range from less than 1% to about 5%.

Caregiving:  Caregiver demand is driven by the steady increase in our elder population and functional impairment.  As the number of elders rise, so does the number of needed caregivers. The number of people 65 years old and older in the U.S. is expected to rise by over 100% between 2000 and 2030, at a rate of 2.3% each year, with Nevada even higher.  Unfortunately, however, over that same 30-year period the number of family members who are available to provide care for these older adults is expected to increase by only 25%, at a rate of 0.8% per year.

Caregiving exerts a tremendous toll on caregivers’ health and well-being, and accounts for significant costs to families and society as well. Family caregiving has been associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety, as well as higher use of psychoactive medications, poorer self-reported physical health, compromised immune function, and increased mortality. Over half of caregivers indicate that their decline in health compromises their ability to provide care.

So in order to age in a healthful manner and add life to our years, we should: exercise, eat well, receive preventive clinical services, exercise your brain, recognize and treat depression, and educate and support the caregiving role.

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