According to fresh US Census Bureau data, the number of Americans 65 and older is set to double by the year 2050. By 2030, 20 per cent of the country's population will be over 65.
In 2012, the number of seniors 65 and over was 43.1 million, whereas census projections put the older population at an estimated 83.7 million in 2050 - with serious implications for health care and national policy - as baby boomers suffer from potentially costly and devastating age-related diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
While baby boomers have influenced much of our social and economic structure since this wave of post-war births in the late 1940s and early 1950s, their numbers will decrease in the coming decades. By 2050 the average baby boomer will be around 85 years old.
While much can be done in terms of healthy lifestyle (such as following a nutritious diet and exercising regularly) to avoid typical diseases of aging, the health record of boomers does not bode well for the future. Despite advances in medical treatments, factors like more stress and rising rates of obesity have led some researchers to conclude that boomers are less healthy than their parents were at the same age.
Learn how you can jump-start your efforts to be healthy in the future, in my article on Top 5 Anti-Aging Habits.
Fueled by Aging Baby Boomers, Nation's Older Population to Nearly Double. US Census Bureau Press Release published May 6, 2014.
You may not need a longitudinal study to tell you that it feels good to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. But mounting evidence shows that the health benefits of being in nature go beyond a simple boost in mood. For example, new research on more than 5,000 older adults in Lithuania shows that living near green space, and using parks more often is significantly linked with a lower incidence of heart disease. The subjects were tracked over more than four years, and even after accounting for body weight, smoking habits and physical inactivity, using a park and living near one was positively correlated with better heart health.
According to a 2011 review of 38 different studies on the health effects of various nature-based programs, quantifying exactly how much contact with nature - and who benefits the most - still pose major research challenges. Still, anyone who's felt less stressed-out after a brisk walk or even a quick run around the neighbourhood knows how much getting outside can clear your mind. Why not your body as well?
Annerstedt, A and Wahrborg, P. Nature-Assisted Therapy: Systematic Review of Controlled and Observational Studies. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2011;39:371-388.
Tamosiunas et al. "Accessibility and use of urban green spaces, and cardiovascular health: findings from a Kaunas cohort study." Environmental Health 2014, 13:20.
More evidence that the brain might compensate for nerve damage through retraining: a new study published in the April issue of the journal JAMA Opthalmology found a small but significant degree of vision was restored in glaucoma patients after regular computerized eye exercises.
Glaucoma is a group of progressive age-related eye diseases which cause permanent deterioration to the optic nerve which sends visual information from the retina to the brain. Adults over the age of 60 are most at risk, as are African-Americans over 40, diabetics, and adults with high blood pressure. A build-up of pressure within the eye is believed to be the cause of optic nerve damage, and the condition can develop slowly over many years. Left untreated, glaucoma can lead to complete loss of vision.
The 30 subjects were between the ages of 39 and 79, all with some degree of vision loss from glaucoma. Half of them did eye exercises in which they hit a computer key as soon as they saw a bar of light appear on a dark screen, a test which progressed if the subject's vision improved. The tests were performed with either the right eye or the left, twice a day for 30 minutes per session, six days a week for a period of three months.
The group was assessed for accuracy and reaction time. The control or placebo group also did simple computer exercises not designed to improve vision.
After 3 months of training, not all of the test subjects improved, but overall there was an improvement in their rate of light detection from 37% at the start of the study, to a detection rate of about 44% at the end. Overall reaction time also improved among the test group, from 579 milliseconds to 541 milliseconds, a gain reported by the researchers to indicate improved light perception.
Why would the training improve vision? The German researchers write that thanks to the brain's ability to adapt and change to shifting stimuli, training can improve the ability to detect even diminished sensory input. This is not a cure for glaucoma, and does not show that damaged nerve cells are regenerated. As a small study, it does suggest that the brain can make sense of less visual information in the case of glaucoma, and perhaps be able to perceive light better with practice.
Similar evidence shows that the brain can retain memory by practicing games and puzzles.
While these results may be promising, the best approach to avoiding vision loss from glaucoma is early detection and treatment. Since vision loss may not occur until the disease has progressed considerably, having a full and comprehensive eye exam - including a dilation and pressure test - at least once every two years can help people with early-stage glaucoma be treated early.
Read more on vision and aging:
- Quit smoking to save your vision
- Can presbyopia be reversed or treated?
- Discount readers: A threat to aging eyes?
Bernhard Sabel and Julia Gudlin. "Vision Restoration Training for Glaucoma: A Randomized Clinical Trial." JAMA Opthalmology 2014:132(4):381-389.
Facts About Glaucoma. National Institutes of Health, National Eye Institute Public Information Sheet. Accessed April 24, 2014.
A new study this week revealing that four paraplegic men were able to perform voluntary movements with their legs using an electrical stimulation device may eventually help older adults suffering paralysis from stroke or spinal cord injury.
The research, published online in the journal Brain, involved four men in their twenties who'd all been paralyzed for at least two years. After electrodes were implanted just beneath the skin along the spinal cord, an electrical charge could be generated using a small wireless hand-held device, about the size of a TV remote.
Initially, the men were able to move their legs slightly, and with intensive physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles, have eventually been able to lift their legs and flex their knees and ankles on command. No weight-bearing movements such as standing or walking have yet been possible.
Researcher and director of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation's NeuroRecovery Network Susan Harkema tells me that her team's discovery offers a viable alternative to the notion that nerve cells need to be revived and grown for spinal cord injury recovery.
"The vast majority of the current research - maybe 95% or more - is going into nerve regeneration. While there have been significant advances in that area, our study shows that even below the site of the spinal cord injury, nerve cells may still be functioning years after the accident. The spinal cord plays a bigger role in coordinating movement than we've ever thought, and we're learning that it may be as adaptable as the brain."
Harkema says that in the case of paralysis from stroke, more of the neurological system may be intact and ready to work than previously thought. She believes that discovering how to get electrical impulses to those undamaged areas is an important new challenge to help stroke patients, and also for older people injured through falls or other accidents.
Research from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published in the Journal of Neurotrauma in early 2014 found that falls among older adults now constitute the most common cause of spinal cord injuries, overtaking car accidents as a contributing factor. While we usually cite the mortality rate after a hip fracture, a spinal cord injury also carries serious risks to health, mobility and longevity of older adults.
Claudia A Angeli, V Reggie Edgerton, Yury P Gerasimenko, and Susan J Harkema. "Altering Spinal Cord Excitability Enables Voluntary Movements After Chronic Complete Paralysis in Humans." Brain 2014. doi: 10.1093/brain/awu038.
Shalini Selvarajah, Edward R. Hammond, Adil H. Haide et al. "The Burden of Acute Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury Among Adults in the United States: An Update." Journal of Neurotrauma 31:228-238 (February 1, 2014).
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) are recruiting participants who suffer from tinnitus, as part of a small clinical trial to assess a treatment to reduce or eliminate the sometimes debilitating condition.
Tinnitus is a persistent ringing or hissing in the ears, and tends to be more prevalent with age. Along with many other changes the body undergoes with time, cumulative damage to hearing can result in a faulty neural pathway, resulting in hearing sounds that do not exist. Tinnitus can manifest as chirping, clicking, or roaring sounds - all of which can impede concentration and sleep.
The new study will assess the effectiveness of a technique which aims to "reboot" the way the brain perceives sound at certain frequencies. The procedure uses vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and was developed by researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas and a medical device firm MicroTransponder. The trial will be based in four locations: the University of Texas at Dallas, the University at Buffalo (SUNY), Buffalo; and the University of Iowa, Iowa City, with a fourth site to be announced in the near future.
You can read more about the technology, in my article Is There a Cure for Tinnitus?.
For more information, see the study's website here.
"NIH announces recruitment for clinical trial to test new tinnitus treatment device." Press release dated March 6, 2014.
A battery-operated device which aims to prevent the severe pain of migraine headaches has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but it has already amassed a following in some European countries and Canada.
The Cefaly -a headband which attaches to a self-adhesive electrode onto the forehead - is designed to deliver mild electrical impulses through the skin to the trigeminal nerve, thought to be a neurological player in migraines.
It's the first device ever to be approved by the FDA to prevent migraines, and will require a prescription in that country. In Canada no medical prescription is required, a factor prompting some Americans to order the Cefaly online from their northern neighbor.
Will it prevent migraines, or make them less intense for you? Hard to say. A satisfaction survey of more than 2,300 users in France, Belgium and Switzerland revealed that only 53.4% of respondents would purchase their own device for continued use. And while a small study conducted in Belgium showed people using the Cefaly benefited from "significantly fewer" days of migraine pain (requiring less medication), the headaches which did occur were not less intense as reported by the subjects.
Still, in a world where it's tough to avoid migraine triggers, and not all remedies work all of the time, many adults battling these debilitating headaches might feel that anything is worth a try.
It may be harder than it sounds: from sundown today to sundown tomorrow, the organizers of the National Day of Unplugging urge you to disconnect, detach, and generally extract yourself from the electronics which rule our daily lives.
In an age of hyperconnectivity, more people are attempting to find some peace away from their tablets, laptops and smartphones. Multi-tasking to the extreme, beleaguered employees are finding themselves anxious and stressed, rather than flush with the extra leisure time these technological devices were supposed to bring.
- Read more: How does stress affect our longevity?
An antidote to this fractured attention? Mindfulness meditation - a simple but profound practice which encourages us to simply observe our thoughts in the moment, and accept our current frame of mind. Even brief periods of so-called mindfulness can help you calm down and be less reactive to the emotions triggered by the aggressive driver behind you, or the slow-moving clerk at the grocery checkout.
Stress is a major reason that baby boomers rank lower on the health scale than their parents' generation did, at the same age, despite our current knowledge about fitness, healthy lifestyle and anti-aging diet rules. Mindfulness training may offer a hedge against the dangers of ongoing stress, by offering a "mini-vacation" for your psyche.
It's enough of a health concern that corporations like General Mills are adopting mindfulness programs for their employees to reduce stress, absenteeism, and improve productivity and creativity, according to a cover story in last month's Time magazine.
One of the most frustrating side effects of getting older is the extent to which sleep can be fractured. Staying asleep - even for people who have no trouble actually falling asleep - becomes a nightly challenge for many.
How can you manage this, and still feel well-rested in the morning? Many sleep experts advise getting out of bed in order to read or listen to music, to avoid turning your bed into a stress-ridden bastion of sleep performance anxiety.
I've never found this approach to be effective for me, however. So-called "morning people" (and I am one) just wake up too thoroughly once out of bed, whether it's 3 am or 7 am. Instead, I have through trial and error developed some techniques of my own, and benefited from those recommended by sleep doctors such as practicing meditation or relaxation exercises.
For an avid walker, ice on roads and pathways can really get in the way. I live in Calgary and this year we've seen an unprecedented number of falls within the community. While living near the mountains always creates a freeze-thaw cycle that repeats several times over the winter, the temperature has really jumped up and down more than usual this year. With every big melt comes a rapid freeze, creating skating rink conditions on city sidewalks and streets.
In one 48-hour period, thirty people fell and suffered injuries requiring emergency medical care, with broken limbs occurring at triple the seasonal average. Some seniors' homes were advising their residents not to walk outdoors at all. Indeed, falls are the top cause of injury and injury-related deaths in people over the age of 65, and the effects can be disastrous.
So, I've researched tips on how to walk safely in winter conditions! Not only should you be careful to dress for the weather to avoid getting too cold, proper footwear and technique can help keep you vertical on icy surfaces. This is the time to wear your flat, supportive shoes rather than boots with smooth soles and spiked heels. Think stability over fashion.
Above all, don't stay inside if at all possible. Enlist the help of a supportive friend or family member. Being outside is good for your morale, your health, and is likely to help you continue exercising more regularly. Just make sure you do it safely.
Read more: Winter walking tips
Like many people, I recently asked myself how much daily movement I was getting, over and above the time I spent exercising at the gym. A traditional step-counting pedometer could tell me how many steps I logged each day - and according to a 2007 study might succeed in giving me that motivational push to take more steps. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the research found a strong link between regular pedometer use and lower Body Mass Index, lower blood pressure and more physical activity in general.
Still, I have always found step counters to be cumbersome: they bulge out under my shirt, and inevitably they fall on the floor or worse, into the toilet. I decided I'd rather wear something on my wrist than on my waistband, to register not only my daily steps but all movement.
Based in part on our Walking Expert's review of the Nike FuelBand SE, I decided on this model. I knew I would like the visual readout, not to mention the fireworks display when I hit my daily goal. Nike's "fuel" reading took some getting used to (1 point of fuel = roughly 3 steps) and I had to return it to the store once in order to get the right size. But overall, even though there's very little independent research on these wearable trackers, I have found the Fuelband motivates me to get moving. When else have I been on the phone at 11pm, walking around the living room to log some last movement of the day in order to hit my goal?
Research is pending on the accuracy and motivational power of digital activity monitors. I suspect they'll find that for people who pick an achievable goal and stick with it, these little devices will prompt them to sit less and move more during the day.
Read my full articles:
- How motivating are activity monitors?
- How accurate are these wearable devices?
- How to burn calories without exercising
Dena M. Bravata, Crystal Smith-Spangler, Vandana Sundaram, Allison L. Gienger, et al. "Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health: A Systematic Review." JAMA. 2007;298(19):2296-2304.