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A Public Health Challenge of the 21st Century: Enhancing Quality of Life for Aging Populations

October 11, 2016
by Jennifer Kaylin

Many countries are in the midst of a “longevity epidemic,” with people living longer than ever before.

And while this is good news for individuals who want to grow old with their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, it’s proving to be a challenge for societies and caregivers who work with the growing number of elderly patients in need of assistance as their functionality starts to diminish.

The public health challenge is how to make a longer life a better life.

“That should be the goal of aging research,” Anne Newman, M.D., M.P.H., told a large audience during a Dean’s Lecture and Program on Aging Seminar Wednesday (October 5) in Winslow Auditorium at the Yale School of Public Health.

Newman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, is internationally renowned for her work on the epidemiology of aging, longevity and disability, and has served as the principal investigator for several long-term studies of aging and longevity. Her research has established the clear potential for old age to be a productive and active period of life.

People used to think that the swelling number of elderly people would become a health care problem in about 50 years. “Well, it didn’t take 50 years,” she said. “It’s already here. We’re living in a time when we have an epidemic of aging.”

Why do some people stay healthier, longer than others? It’s not all genetics. “DNA is programmed to replicate itself; not to make us live a long time,” she said. People can optimize functionality in the face of aging, Newman said, by doing certain common-sense things like staying active, not smoking and avoiding obesity. She also emphasized the importance of cardiovascular risk factors, such as not smoking, controlling blood pressure and preventing obesity and diabetes.

Anyone who visits a nursing home knows that women tend to outlive men. “The biological differences between men and women are under-recognized and under-studied,” Newman said. “What makes men stronger and larger may increase their risk of disease and death. What’s good when you’re younger may be bad when you’re older.”

But while women lives longer, Newman said, they spend more of their later years disabled. Still, there are things we can all do to live healthier lives in our old age. To illustrate her point, Newman displayed two photos of popular singers who are close in age: Mick Jagger, 73, and Bruce Springsteen, 67. Jagger looked old and haggard. Springsteen, meanwhile, looked fit and healthy. “Jagger lived a rough-and-tumble life,” Newman said. “Springsteen runs, eats well and takes care of himself.”

Can a healthy lifestyle compress the disability period in older adults, Newman asked. “Absolutely.” A challenge is to improve life expectancy in areas and groups that are lagging behind.

Newman said there’s been an “explosion of information on defining the basic biology of aging. Genetic manipulation, caloric restriction, parabiosis and senolysis are just four potential treatment options that researchers are studying in animal models to improve health span and prevent disability. In humans, the only intervention to date that has worked to prevent old-age disability, Newman said, is physical activity.

Even without future interventions for aging, current public health interventions have been very successful. Based on what we know now, coming generations throughout the world can expect to live long and healthier lives.

View the entire lecture at http://ow.ly/GIwL304J7Rr.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on October 11, 2016