The lifestyle choices and screenings that could reduce health challenges facing the nation’s largest generation
About 76 million people were born during the baby boom years, which range from 1946 to 1964. As the first wave of these baby boomers reaches retirement age and becomes eligible for Medicare, physicians are focusing on health concerns that will become more prevalent among this generation.
“As the Baby Boomers get older, physicians are seeing a rising incidence of some common health concerns associated with aging,” says Wilfredo Abesamis, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Scripps Coastal Medical Center. “The risks of developing some of these conditions can be reduced through lifestyle choices, and we can work together with these patients on appropriate screening for other common diseases of aging,” he adds.
Health challenges facing baby boomers
1. Type 2 diabetes
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011 people ages 65-74 were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 13 times as often as people age 45 or younger. Diabetes increases the risk of serious health problems such as high blood pressure, vision loss, kidney disease, nerve damage, foot problems, amputation and cardiovascular disease. People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke. Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for diabetes. With lifestyle changes and proper medical care, diabetes and its associated risks can be managed.
2. Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women over age 60. After age 45, the risk of developing it increases significantly. Coronary artery disease, in which the arteries that deliver blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked, is the most common type of heart disease and a main cause of heart attacks.
“Heart disease risk falls significantly when people avoid tobacco use, control their blood pressure and cholesterol through exercise and a low-fat, low-sodium diet, and maintain a healthy body weight,” says Dr. Abesamis. If you’re between ages 45 and 79, you should ask your doctor if taking aspirin might lower your risk of heart attack.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death among people age 65 and older. “Aging is associated with higher rates of lung, skin colon, breast and prostate cancer,” says Dr. Abesamis. Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke can help reduce the risk for developing lung cancer, while regular screenings for skin, colon, breast and prostate cancer can catch these diseases early, while they are still highly treatable.
Depression affects more than 6.5 million Americans age 65 or older. While many have struggled with depression throughout their lives, some may experience it for the first time later in life. “It’s important that physicians recognize the symptoms of depression are not a normal part of aging,” Dr. Abesamis says. Appropriate treatment is effective and may even lead to positive changes in brain chemistry.
5. Eye Problems
Cataracts affect nearly 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older, and by age 80, more than half of all Americans have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. Recent advancements have improved the precision and safety of cataract surgery, resulting in faster surgeries, easier and shorter recoveries, and in some cases, better vision than before surgery. In addition, untreated macular degeneration (a progressive disease of the eye) is the leading cause of blindness in people over age 55. With treatment, the progression of the disease may be stopped or slowed. Annual eye exams can help catch vision problems in their earliest stages.
6. Alzheimer’s disease
The sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., Alzheimer’s disease is most common in people age 65 and older. But up to 5 percent of people begin to experience symptoms in their 50s or even their 40s. “Emerging evidence suggests a close link between brain health and overall health of the heart and blood vessels,” says Dr. Abesamis. While Alzheimer’s disease currently has no known cause or cure, a healthy cardiovascular system can help to ensure that plenty of nutrient-rich blood reaches the brain.
7. Arthritis and Joint Replacement
When the cartilage that cushions your bones at the joints begins to break down, the bones begin to rub together. The resulting pain, swelling and stiffness is called osteoarthritis. While it is a normal part of aging, it can also be caused by damage due to physical activity over a long period of time. Treatment ranges from pain medications to joint replacement.
After age 50, as many as half of all women will break a bone due to osteoporosis. By age 65 or 70, men and women lose bone mass at the same rate, with a similar decrease in the amount of calcium their bones absorb. Tobacco and alcohol use earlier in life can increase risk, as can being underweight. Talk to your doctor about calcium supplements and other treatments that can help prevent osteoporosis.
Influenza and pneumonia and are among the top 10 causes of death for older adults. Annual vaccinations are now widely available for both diseases and are usually covered by health insurance or available at a very low cost. Ask your doctor if you should be vaccinated.
10. “Sandwich Generation” Stress
In addition to caring for their own families, many boomers are caring for elderly parents as well. The stress of being a dual caregiver can be significant, especially on individuals who are also working outside the home, struggling financially, or dealing with other challenges. “It’s important to take care of yourself first,” says Dr. Abesabis. Make an effort to get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise regularly.
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