OTTAWA Sixty-five is the new 55, or so the mantra among agingboomers holds. And as Canada prepares to wish a happy 65th birthday to itsfive-millionth senior, lifestyle diseases driven by excess weightand sloth could see people developing age-related ailments fasterthan generations before them. Census data released Tuesday counted 4,945,060 people aged 65 andolder in Canada in 2011, an increase of more than 14 per cent sincethe last count in 2006 a rate of growth more than double the5.9-per-cent increase for the Canadian population as a whole. This demographic shift especially strong in Atlantic Canada andQuebec is being driven by longer life expectancy, and the factwomen aren't having enough babies to replenish the population. By 2031, 22.8 per cent of the population will be 65 and older. |
Theproportion will jump to one quarter 25.5 per cent by 2061. "The entire Western world is on its way to a demographictsunami of seniors, and we have to figure out ways to keep thesepeople out of the health system," says Dr. Max Cynader,director of the Brain Research Centre and Djavad Mowafaghian Centrefor Brain Health at Vancouver Coastal Health and the University ofB.C. In addition, the older the population, the higher the prevalence ofneurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's, he says. The risk factors for stroke age is the leading one are thesame as for heart attack: "Being overweight, smoking, highcholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, eating too much redmeat," Cynader says.
"If you've got two or three of them together if you havehigh blood pressure, and are overweight, and smoking you'rebasically a walking time bomb." People over 65 aren't all equal; they're a highly diverse bunch,says Dr. Parminder Raina, lead principal investigator for theCanadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, a major national study thatis looking at why some people stay healthy with age, and othersdon't. "But we hear about the obesity epidemic, the poorer nutrition.Perhaps not in the short term, but in the long run especiallyfor the baby boom population that's going to be an issue inrelation to chronic diseases that are going to happen and that aregoing to be detected early," says Raina, a professor atMcMaster University in Hamilton. Whether that translates into more disability down the road isunknown.
The looming question is: how will those lifestyle changesaffect the quality of our extra years of life? According to a recent House of Commons health committee report, theaverage life expectancy of Canadians has increased by more than 30years since the early 1900s to 78 for men, and 83 for women in2011. But the number of years lived in good health peaked in 1996,and has been on a downward slide since. The majority of seniors have at least one chronic condition; asmany as one in four has two or more. Diabetes, chronic pain, bone-related diseases and some cancers areon the rise. Currently, half a million seniors suffer fromdementia, a number that is expected to rise to more than a millionby 2038, the committee heard.
Eighty per cent of lung cancers occurin people over 60, while rates of chronic obstructive pulmonarydisease caused by asthma and smoking among 65- to 75-year-olds istriple that of younger Canadians. Raina, of McMaster, suspects issues related to mental health andstress are going to be an even bigger issue as the population ages. "As people get older, families move away, social isolationstarts to happen and social isolation is an importantdeterminant of how people age." Humans experience a "depressingly steady decline" incognitive performance everything from reaction time to workingmemory beginning in our early 20s. Yet, "things that you might call wisdom," he says ourvocabulary, the ability to see the big picture, synonyms andantonyms improve slightly with age, even into our 70s and 80s. "There are a lot of things that are going south in the brainas you're getting older your vulnerability to small diseases isincreasing, your circulation is tending to be not quite as robustas it used to be, you're losing some neurons, for one reason oranother," Cynader, of the Brain Research Centre, says.
The single most important thing people can do to reduce the risk ofage-related brain decline is exercise, he says. It used to bethought that humans were born with all the neurons they would everhave. "It turns out all of us are making new neurons every day we're probably making in the order of 10,000 new neurons everyweek, and we're making them in parts of the brain that are crucialfor learning and memory," Cynader says. "You can double or triple the number of new neurons that youproduce next week by doing physical exercise." Normally the hippocampus, which is important in learning andmemory, shrinks with age, increasing dementia risk. A recent studyinvolving 120 older adults without dementia found thatmoderate-intensity exercise a 40-minute walk, three times a week increases the size of the hippocampus and improves memory afterone year.
Sleep is also vital for the aging brain, he says. "There isevidence that if you disrupt sleep . .
your memory capabilitiesdegrade." Most people should also be eating less. "There are documentedstudies that you basically age more slowly if you eat less,"Cynader says. In addition, having a stimulating lifestyle "exposingyourself to new ideas, exposing yourself to social contacts,basically being emotionally, socially, cognitively connected isgood for you," he added. It goes beyond promoting healthy aging, Cynader says. "We should be trying to maximize the human capital that we'vegot because a lot of these people have a lot to offerstill." Twitter.com/sharon_kirkey.
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