Healthy Aging: Fact or Fiction?

Is it possible to age healthily? Experts say yes, and here’s how
February 11, 2020

Did you know that the world population of adults 65 and older is growing faster than all other age groups? According to the United Nations, for the first time in history, older adults outnumber kids under 5 years old worldwide, and the over 65 population is projected to grow even more dramatically—from 143 million in 2019 to 426 million in 2050. As we head into a new year and a new decade, learn what discerns healthy aging fact from fiction so that we can come together in collaborative action to improve lives of the aging population.

Healthy aging depends on who you are, what you do and where you live.

FACT. Aging is more than our genes. Healthy aging is actually dependent on a number of biological, psychological and social factors working together over a lifetime. We now know that social determinants of health—which are the conditions in a person’s environment—account for approximately 40 percent of health outcomes such as length of life and quality of those added years.

Marcia G. Ory, PhD, MPH, founding and co-director of the Center for Population Health and Aging at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, adds, “While advances in medicine and clinical care are important, public health advances—such as banning indoor smoking, mandating seat belt usages and protecting worker’s health—account for the 25 additional years of life expectancy over the last century. In fact, many people are unaware that the zip code where you live is now recognized as one of the most important health influencers.”

Falls are not a normal part of the aging process.

FACT. Falls are not a normal part of aging, but the incidence of falls does increase with age. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that engaging in physical activity, getting eye and feet checkups, sharing falls-related concerns with health care providers and making environments safer can help older adults prevent falls.

“Daily lifestyle behaviors such as physical activity, nutrition and sleep quality can influence fall risk, and these are never too late to change,” said Matthew Lee Smith, PhD, MPH, CHES, FGSA, FAAHB, co-director of the Center for Population Health and Aging. “Interventions can be successful for people of all ages. Among the most important is physical activity, namely, safely performing lower-body exercises to increase strength, balance and flexibility.”

Age perceptions can influence healthy aging.

FACT. Whether positive or negative, research has indicated that age stereotypes can influence an older adult’s health and functional well-being and even result in a 7.5-year longevity gap.

“We need to challenge the negative stereotypes people hold about older adults,” Ory said.  “The idea that older people are frail and set in their ways can be truly detrimental to health. Recent data reveal that this is a world-wide phenomenon.”

Family members provide the majority of care for older adults.

FACT. The latest statistics, indicate that family caregivers—more than 40 million—provided an estimated 34 billion hours of unpaid care to adults with daily activity limitations over the course of a year in 2017. The value of unpaid caregiving ($470 billion) is a testament to the financial investment that families are providing.

Although family caregivers provide the majority of care, Ory notes that family caregiving can be stressful, and programs are available through the Center for Population Health and Aging to teach skills in providing care and also in coping with caregiving challenges, especially those faced by persons caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Everyone ages at the same rate.

FICTION. Ever wondered why someone can look so much older or younger than their age?  The key lies in the differences between biological aging and chronological aging. Chronological aging is the number of years a person has been alive, while biological aging refers to how old a person appears to be and considers the intrinsic (genetic) and extrinsic (behavioral) factors.

“Our lifestyle and behavioral choices have a tremendous impact on our ability to age well—or not well,” Smith said. “Things like physical activity, nutrition, proper sleep, medication management—even the use of technology and assisted devices if it’s needed—there are so many things we can do to truly help somebody so they can age gracefully and in place.”

Prevention programs are not effective for older populations.

FICTION. Research shows that prevention and self-management programs are effective for older populations. The Center for Population Health and Aging offers a number of these self-management programs that are evidence-based and led by a team of trained professionals.

“Our local, state and national evaluations have documented that these evidence-based, chronic disease self-management, fall prevention and physical activity programs can improve the triple aim of better health, better health care and better value,” said Cindy Quinn, manager of the Active for Life® program at the center.

Lauren Rouse AuthorContributor

— Lauren Rouse

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