In 2013, there were 44.7 million people aged 65 or older in the United States, representing about 14% of the total U.S. population. It’s estimated that by 2040, over 20% of the U.S. population will be aged 65 or older. With such a large number of older individuals in our country, researchers are examining ways to help elderly people stay healthy for longer.
The cornerstones of healthy living are just as important for the elderly as for everyone else.
Eating a healthy diet, exercising, using the mind, and managing various risk factors are all important to everyday and long-term health. Researchers have now shown that these factors are also important to mental functioning in the elderly.
These researchers divided study participants into two groups. One group received regular health advice, while the other group received interventional health advice. The participants were all deemed at risk of developing dementia. The intervention group met regularly with physicians, nurses, and other health professionals over two years. They were given advice pertaining to healthy diet, brain training exercises, and both muscular and cardiovascular exercise, as well as how to manage metabolic and vascular risk factors.
After two years, a standard test was used to score the participants’ mental functioning. The results were striking, as noted by the article summarizing the study:
“Overall test scores in the intervention group were 25% higher than in the control group. For some parts of the test, the difference between groups was even more striking – for executive functioning (the brain’s ability to organize and regulate thought processes) scores were 83% higher in the intervention group, and processing speed was 150% higher.”
Physical exercise, in particular, seems to have a multitude of benefits for elderly people.
Small areas of brain damage are common in elderly individuals. For instance, white matter hyperintensities are visible on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests. Increased levels of white matter hyperintensities are associated with movement problems, like difficulty walking.
However, a recent study found that exercise can reduce the movement problems associated with this type of brain damage. Exercise was measured with movement monitors on the wrists. Participants also took 11 different movement ability tests and had MRIs done to measure the volume of white matter hyperintensities. The results showed that the more active the individuals were, the more capable they were as far as physical movement – even when there was brain damage present. The reverse was also true. The less active they were, the poorer they scored on the movement tests.
Additionally, more intensive cardiovascular exercise seems to be beneficial.
One study found that elderly people who run regularly have a lower metabolic cost of walking, as compared to sedentary elderly people. The metabolic cost is the amount of energy required to move. It naturally increases with age, making movement more taxing and contributing to declining walking ability (a key predictor of morbidity in the elderly). However, it was found that older joggers and runners have a metabolic cost similar to people in their 20s. Walking regularly can benefit metabolic cost, too, but running produced 7-10% higher results.
One group of researchers has found that exercise facilitated by technology can also have significant benefits for the elderly.
Dance exercises via video game consoles were added to a physiotherapy program for the pelvic floor muscles. The exercise program was intended to help elderly women with urinary incontinence.
Once the dance exercises were added to the program, the researchers observed several benefits, including:
- Greater decrease than usual in daily urine leakage
- No program dropouts
- Higher weekly participation
While the dance moves did indeed help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, it was noted that one of the biggest benefits was compliance. Because participants had fun dancing and socializing, they didn’t drop out of the program. This led to more practice of the exercises, which led to stronger muscles.
In addition to exercise and other healthy habits, the wellbeing of an elderly individual is closely connected to the health of his or her spouse.
Specifically, cognitive and physical health of one older person will affect the same in his or her spouse, as noted in an article from the University of Arizona:
“Husbands’ and wives’ quality of life appears to be equally impacted by their spouse’s physical health, with no difference across gender lines. In other words, a wife’s physical health impacts her husband’s quality of life as much as a husband’s physical health affects his wife’s quality of life…. With regard to cognition, wives’ cognitive functioning appears to have as much of an effect of husbands’ quality of life as husbands’ own cognitive abilities. Wives’ quality of life was not as strongly affected by their husbands’ cognition, but there was a measurable impact.”
Also noted is that in the study used to reach these conclusions, survey results were gathered at three different intervals. Overall quality of life changed similarly between husbands and wives. In other words, if the overall quality of life of one individual changed, his or her spouse’s overall quality of life mirrored that change.
Specialized care for elderly people also has significant benefits.
For instance, when an elderly person is injured and goes to the emergency room, he or she will likely be seen by a variety of specialists – neurologists, orthopedists, etc. However, it’s rare that he or she will be seen by a geriatrician, or a physician who specializes in the care of elderly people.
In one study, though, researchers compared the results of elderly people hospitalized after trauma (usually a fall). When a geriatrician was involved and collaborated with the trauma surgeon to assess level of functioning, family support, financial challenges, mobility, and cognition, the patient did better. It’s suggested that this is because a more comprehensive understanding of an elderly person’s home situation can lead to a more appropriate care plan. When a geriatrician helps paint a more complete picture of what an elderly patient’s overall condition is, that patient’s medical team can better personalize his or her healthcare.
House calls have also been found to benefit elderly individuals. When in-home primary care was provided, elderly people were less likely to be readmitted to a hospital within 30 days of discharge. They also received prompt follow-up care and medication review. Not only did this provide high-quality care and improve patient satisfaction, but it saved an average of over $3,000 per person.
With the increasing number of elderly individuals in the United States, knowing how to provide the best care possible is vital. The more researchers can learn about how to improve the health of elderly people, the better we can eventually do at developing age-friendly communities.
Do you have an elderly family member? How do you help support his or her wellbeing? How do you support your own wellbeing if you are over 65?
Image by Fechi Fajardo via Flickr