- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: Aging, Redefined

As I prepare to join the Medicare club, a new study suggests much of what we’ve been told about aging and chronic illness may be wrong.

Medicare

I applied for Medicare last week. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be – answer a few questions online, hit the “submit” button, and . . . go lie down for a while.

Now I am officially old. An aspiring ward of the state. The end is near.

Or at least that’s what we’ve all been taught to think. Chronology doesn’t lie, after all, and the more years you accumulate the more likely some illness will send you to the hospital, never to be the same. Hence Medicare.

So I was happy to stumble upon a new study out of the University of Chicago that suggests age itself has very little influence on a person’s well-being. In fact, the most common chronic diseases that tend to push geezers like me over the edge — heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and such — don’t have as much impact on our overall quality of life as we’ve been led to believe.

If this sounds a bit counterintuitive to you, join the club.

The so-called medical model has always defined good health as the absence of illness, but the study’s coauthors, biopsychologist Martha McClintock and demographer Linda Waite, argue that about half of the elderly population currently viewed as healthy have “significant vulnerabilities” that are likely to render them incapacitated or dead within five years.

“At the same time,” Waite said, “some people with chronic disease are revealed as having many strengths that lead to their reclassification as quite healthy, with low risks of death or incapacity.”

The team analyzed data from a longitudinal survey of 3,000 folks between the ages of 57 and 85 and discovered several trends that ran counter to conventional medical thinking:

  • Cancer alone is not related to other conditions that undermine health.
  • Poor mental health is a more powerful force in undermining health than previous thought.
  • Obesity is not a risk factor for older folks who are physically and mentally healthy.
  • Sensory skills and social relationships play critical roles in sustaining a healthy life.
  • Breaking a bone after age 45 is a major contributor to future health issues.
  • Mobility is one of the best signs of well-being in older persons.

So, according to this comprehensive model of well-being, the healthiest geezers (fully 22 percent of the study participants) are those who, on the one hand, are obese and have high blood pressure, but also have managed to avoid organ system diseases, and enjoy better mobility, sensory function, and psychological health. A mere 6 percent of these folks died in the five years after participating in the survey.

The riskiest group had mobility issues and suffered from uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension. Five years after the survey, 35 percent of this group had died or were incapacitated.

The upshot, as I understand it, is that we shouldn’t worry too much about our weight as we age, so long as we remain physically active and psychologically balanced. There’s the matter of organ diseases, of course, which may or may not be a roll of the dice. But never mind that — even those who found their organs rebelling were more robust than expected when other factors were considered.

So maybe I’m not loitering on death’s doorstep just because I’m about to graduate to senior citizenship. Maybe the slippery slope offers a few handholds. Why not stay positive? If I’m wrong, after all, there’s always Medicare.

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