It is true that a healthy life is harder and harder to achieve as the body ages. Breakdown begins on a cellular level, causing everything from osteoporosis to arthritis to cancer. Loss of memory, mobility, and even communication abilities may occur. There is, however, some hopeful information coming from the medical community about aging. Some serious diseases, which claim millions of American lives (especially those of older Americans) are mysteriously affecting fewer and fewer every year. Even taking into account better screening and treatment processes, the medical community is not sure exactly why such deadly diseases are on the decline, but there is certainly cause to celebrate.
Some serious diseases, which claim millions of American lives (especially those of older Americans) are mysteriously affecting fewer and fewer every year.
Gina Kolata reports in The New York Times that since the 1980s the rate of death caused by colon cancer has fallen by almost fifty percent. This means that thousands of people who, statistically, were expected to develop and die from colon cancer are healthy, alive, and colon-cancer-free. Some of this can be attributed to better and more frequent screening for the disease, as well as better education and awareness regarding healthcare and symptoms of cancer, as well as better treatment for cancers in general. Yet the answer is beyond just a combination of those factors.
In the elderly, one of the deadliest threats is a fall that breaks, fractures, or shatters bones. Since bones tend to become more brittle as seniors age, and mobility and balance are often affected, falls and injuries claim the lives of many elderly people. Falls and their prevention are serious topics in the caregiving community. Yet over the past thirty years, Americans have seen a fifteen to twenty percent gradual lowering of hip fractures. Some of this can be attributed to better treatment for bone loss, but it does not affect a significant enough portion of the elderly to cause this (wonderful) drop in lives lost. The New York Times suggests it may be linked to higher weights in all Americans. Heavier people have weightier bones (not to mention more padding when they sustain impact). Thus, keeping elderly people well-fed and preventing drastic weight loss may be a way to help support good bone health and prevent injury.
One of the most emotionally affecting facts of aging is the likelihood of developing dementia, which claims the memories, skills, and personalities of many seniors. The data from the United States and Europe, however, shows a twenty percent decline in dementia rates every decade since the late 1970s. Although there may be more Americans developing dementia as the population of people over the age of sixty swells, the rate is actually lower. This may be because of better treatments for cardiovascular disorders and diseases like high blood pressure or cholesterol. These problems are more under control with advanced treatments, medicines, and nutrition in recent years. It may also be that generations are becoming more educated, which is linked to a lower rate of Alzheimer's Disease (although the exact reason for this is not, scientifically speaking, clear).
The leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease, complicated by poor nutrition, genetic predisposition, lack of access to healthcare, and high rates of obesity. Yet even with a high prevalence of those many risk factors (and more), heart disease rates have been falling for over fifty years. Once claiming nearly one of three American lives, heart disease now kills only about six hundred thousand Americans a year. It claims many lives, but not nearly as many as in decades prior. The exact reason for its decline is also unclear. Better nutrition and education, combined with more effective screening and treatment account for a great deal of its descent, but not all of it.
A recent study out of Harvard Medical School also shows that Americans can expect longer lives and are less likely to be disabled during their extended years.
A recent study out of Harvard Medical School also shows that Americans can expect longer lives and are less likely to be disabled during their extended years. Authors Chernew, Cutler, et al. attribute this to better treatments in cardiovascular health and vision. This means that typical killers, like heart disease or injury, can be prevented through medical assistance and can grant more years of healthy, independent living to seniors. Quitting (or never starting) smoking and getting more advanced cataracts surgeries also help.
The real lesson here? Diseases are not forever, but the best chance for caregivers to provide their loved ones a longer, healthier life is to seek out preventative steps for diseases and to identify risk factors. Discouraging loved ones from smoking, eating poorly, living sedentary lifestyles, and avoiding medical care can keep them on the right side of these statistics, since all of those actions have a part in contributing to lives lost to disease.
Chernew, N., Cutler, D. M., Ghosh, K., Landrum, M. B. (June 2016). Understanding the Improvement in Disability Free Life Expectancy in the U.S. Elderly Population. Working paper