With the United States getting grayer by the day and a national crisis looming in dementia- and senior-care, new information from one of the larger, longer running, and more significant health studies has offered a glimmer of optimism. Experts say dementia risks are showing a decline─by as much as 20 percent. They’re uncertain exactly why. But increased education and individuals’ improved overall health, especially their cardiovascular wellness, may be helping.
An elderly couple wait to cross the road (Photo by Garry Knight/ Creative Commons)
The surprising dementia trend emerges from the legendary Framingham Heart Study, which has monitored and detailed the health of thousands of Americans for decades. Framingham research led to greatly improved heart and lung care with information on such issues as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes, and physical inactivity.
Researchers also have captured key information on respondents’ well-being, including their affliction with dementia-related conditions, especially Alzheimer’s. And, as the largely white and suburban Framingham study subjects have gotten better educated─graduating high school and more─and improved their cardiovascular health, their dementia risks have declined, researchers have found.
This good news is tempered, because such huge numbers of Americans are reaching ages when they may suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Experts fear that too many baby boomers will grow old with obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases unchecked─thereby sending their dementia and Alzheimer’s risks soaring.
Other new research, also involving a large number of people over a long period (14 years), suggests that dementia risks also vary as much as 60 percent among different racial and ethnic groups, with African Americans significantly more in peril, especially as compared with those of Asian descent.
Better-educated Americans not only may be more adept at following common sense rules to stay healthier overall, they also may be staying more mentally engaged, helping to stave off cognitive declines that are linked and contribute to dementia. I have written before about ways to keep mentally fitter while aging. Some experts have said that the United States could benefit greatly, even if caregivers could help seniors delay the onset of dementia-related conditions until even later in life.
The dementia-care crisis
As it stands, the United States confronts a dementia-care crisis. The country already spends billions to assist elders in cognitive decline, a sum that could soar to as much as $500 billion in a few decades. As one research project on the topic describes the situation:
In 2010, 15 percent of Americans older than age 70 had dementia, and the number of new dementia cases among those 65 and older is expected to double by the year 2050. As the baby boomer generation ages, many older adults will require dementia-related long-term services and supports.
Too many care-givers already struggle with parents, relatives, and friends with Alzheimer’s and dementia, giving up jobs, struggling with family finances, and devoting long, hard, and debilitating hours to loved ones’ care; who also will assist the increasing numbers of single, older Americans with cognitive dysfunction?
Medical staff shortages
The tidal wave of demand for elder medical care also couldn’t come at a worse time for the nation as it tries to increase access to health care while reigning in a sector that makes up 18 percent of the national gross domestic product.
Americans not only face shortages in physicians, especially front-line MDs who would see most of the elderly at the outset of the declines, but also in specialists in the aged; there are roughly 7,000 geriatricians practicing now in the United States and the nation soon will need double that number─the field, often low paying and unglamorous, isn’t anywhere near to attracting interested aspirants.
As patients decline, and they do so sharply in the later stages of dementia-related conditions, they require intensive care-giving, and the nation is projected to see dire shortages in the nursing force to provide what’s needed.
While we can and should see some good news in possible declines in dementia risks, the conditions pose such giant challenges to us all that we need to push ahead on all fronts possible with alacrity to ensure the nation can cope with this burgeoning health crisis.