Lifestyle

Lifestyle-related ills tend to multiply with age, study finds | Gustafson

Lifestyle-related ills tend to multiply with age, study finds | Gustafson

Seniors who suffer from chronic health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease often develop a host of other, seemingly unrelated health problems, including cognitive impairment like memory loss and dementia, according to a new study based on data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics.

For the study, the researchers analyzed the medical records of hundreds of thousands of seniors residing in assisted-living facilities and found that most had at least one chronic health condition. What was more alarming, however, was that many had overlapping ailments. While high blood pressure and heart disease were most common, nearly half of the assisted-living residents showed signs of dementia.

"These findings suggest a vulnerable population with a high burden of functional and cognitive impairment," the authors of the study report wrote.

Many studies have suggested a link between vascular disease and dementia, particularly Alzheimer's, said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor for psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University's Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). Therefore it may not be possible to treat dementia without treating vascular problems, he added.

But that may be easier said than done. "We don't universally do a great job of how we treat conditions that overlap, for example Alzheimer's and high blood pressure," said Dr. Cythia M. Boyd, an associate professor of geriatric medicine at the John Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health, to the New York Times. "Much of the way we practice medicine is looking at disease by disease. We aren't doing enough thinking about how to add them together and really integrate care."

What makes things more complicated is that most doctors are not sufficiently trained in preventing or reducing lifestyle-related illnesses – not in the general public and certainly not in older patients – other than through medicating.

For instance, the importance of nutrition as a part of preventive care is rarely ever mentioned in medical schools. The approximate time devoted to nutrition science over the first two years of medical education is six hours, which is clearly inadequate, according to the National Academy of Sciences. The same goes for other health-promoting measures such as exercise, especially for the aging population.

Diet, exercise remain key

Yet many studies have provided compelling evidence that diet and exercise play a significant role for physical and mental health at any time in life but increasingly so as we age.

For example, a more recent study from Britain concluded that the so-called "Western diet," which typically includes fried, sweet and processed foods, red meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products, increases the risk of chronic diseases, which in turn can adversely affect both physical and mental health in later years. Eating a Western diet makes it less likely to have an ideal aging process, says Dr. Tasnime Akbaraly, a researcher at the University College of London and lead author of the study report. Conversely, making dietary improvements can yield multiple benefits in this regard.

There is also further evidence that exercise can give a boost to the aging brain. Scientists at the University of British Columbia found that older women who suffered from mild cognitive impairment could improve their memory through weight training and brisk walking.

The connections between physical and mental decline may not yet be completely understood, but it seems clear that chronic diseases play a major role in the process. While these are widespread, the encouraging news is that many, if not all, are preventable by healthier lifestyle choices.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook and on Pinterest.

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