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How Living Longer Doesn’t Always Mean Healthy Aging

Within the last 100 years, medical advancements have allowed professionals to provide a higher standard of medical care than ever before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this has lead to a 30-year increase in the average life expectancy for the U.S. population. By the year 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that one in five people in the U.S. will be older than 65, and by 2050, the senior population will be twice that of 2012. This growth is contributing to the pressure to provide resources for older adults to ensure that they live comfortably and happily throughout their retirement years.

Longer Lives, More Chronic Conditions

At the start of the last century, infectious disease and acute illness was the main cause of death in the United States. Incredibly, because of scientific and medical breakthroughs, this category has become inconsequential. Life expectancy has been prolonged, but living longer is not necessarily indicative of living a healthy life. As the human body gets older, complications develop. Chronic disease and degenerative illness now pose the greatest risk as people age. Since 1920 and 1938, respectively, heart disease and cancer have been the top two leading causes of death in the U.S., and currently more than 60 percent of older Americans are living with one or more chronic conditions.

According to the CDC , “People living with one or more chronic diseases often experience diminished quality of life, generally reflected by a long period of decline and disability.” This period of decline can restrict people’s capabilities to complete everyday activities, which can inhibit their ability to be happy. Long-term care can greatly increase a person’s quality of life and is often essential for healthy aging.

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Living Longer and Living Well

A large portion of personal health is dependent on environment. Fortunately, there are plenty of care options for older adults to experience fulfilling lives including: assisted living, congregate housing, retirement communities, home health care, nursing homes and special care units. Some of these options can put financial pressure on the individual and their family, while other options can limit a person’s independence. This change can be frustrating and difficult to adjust to. As people age and start to decide which care option is best for them and their families, it is important to take into account cost, but also physical, mental, and emotional well-being. For example, home care is an option that can offer variety of services that are catered to an individual’s needs without limiting independence. Each household must select the best alternative for their particular circumstance. The focus must be not just on living longer, but also on living well.

To stay healthy, the National Institutes of Health recommends older adults eat a balanced diet, keep their minds active, exercise, quit smoking, attend regular checkups, and to avoid accidents. More than just physical health, mental and emotional health are necessary for satisfactory and stimulating livelihoods. The CDC considers social and emotional support to be one of the strongest predictors of well-being. Regular social contact encourages mental stimulation and fostering strong personal connections provides comfort and joy. The focus must be not just on living longer, but also on living safe, happy, and healthy lives.

Bio: Julie Potyraj is the community manager for the MPH@GW blog, the online Master of Public Health offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Her passion for public health developed while she was a community health and education volunteer in rural Zambia. She is currently an MPH@GW student.