Obesity may weigh down gains in mobility
By CHRISTINE DELL'AMORE, UPI Consumer Health Correspondent
WASHINGTON (UPI) -- America's seniors are freer and more mobile than ever before, according to a new report on the country's aging, yet experts warn an explosion of obesity could overwhelm these gains.
The U.S. Census Bureau report, "65(plus) in the United States: 2005," found that the proportion of people with a disability dropped significantly, from 26.2 percent in 1982 to 19.7 percent in 1999. Yet the news is tempered by obesity rates, which continue to rise across the board.
"The question is, 'Will it be a wipeout?'" said Richard Suzman, the associate director for behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging, the federal agency that requested the report.
The short answer? Probably.
"If the trend continues unchecked it could neutralize the improved functional status in 10 or 15 years. It's critical we find ways to reduce disability, both physical and cognitive," Suzman said.
Although the much-publicized "obesity epidemic" has hit particularly hard in children and middle-aged adults, the Census report showed retirement-age Americans have not been spared. Between 1988-1994 and 1999-2000, the percentage of obese men ages 65 to 74 increased nearly 10 percent. There was a similar spike in obese women of the same age.
Scarier still, younger people who stay obese are setting the stage for disability as an older person. Obesity increases the likelihood a person will develop type 2 diabetes, which leads to all sorts of health complications, Suzman said.
The term "disability" refers to two concepts: the activities of daily living, which includes basic skills as dressing, using the toilet and showering; and instrumental activities that rely on cognitive adeptness, such as managing money, taking the bus, or making phone calls. Much of the disability data in the United States is gleaned during the National Longterm Care Survey, a joint Duke University-NIA survey of seniors done every five years.
There are other sides to the story, Suzman cautioned. For instance, being very thin is a common health threat during old age. And although the prevalence of disability has gone down, it's still a problem. According to Census 2000 data, 14 million people age 65 and older reported some level of disability, mostly from chronic conditions such as heart disease or arthritis.
Overall, the Census report chronicles a population redefining what it means to be an older American. Seniors are living longer, staying healthier and making more money than their predecessors.
And as baby boomers soldier on toward old age, the 65-plus population promises to be bigger than ever, doubling from 36 million in 2003 to 72 million in 2030.
Other health-related findings from the report:
-- Average life expectancy at birth rose from 47.3 in 1900 to 76.9 in 2000.
-- Death due to heart disease is declining for those 65 and older.
-- Heart disease, cancer and stroke continue to be the leading causes of death among older Americans.
-- Eighty percent of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and 50 percent have at least two.
"It's great news, but disability is still a major issue in the U.S.," said Catherine Sarkisian, a geriatric physician at the UCLA Medical Center.
Sarkisian also echoed Suzman's concerns of obesity's worrisome surge.
The best way to prevent disability is to exercise, so people should take care of their bodies throughout their lifespan, she said. But seniors are sedentary: Those 65 and older are about five times more likely to not exercise than those ages 18 to 24, the report said.
"If we had (exercise) in a pill, it would be the most successful drug on the market," said Sarkisian.
Overall, Suzman seemed to take a bittersweet attitude toward the report.
"There are positive notes, but there are also some dark clouds on the horizon," he said.
One of these thunderheads, Suzman said, is Social Security.
"One still has to solve the Social Security and retirement income issue. We have 20 to 30 years to do it, and the more we delay, the more drastic it becomes," he said.