Article Archive

Fall 2008

Improving the Odds
By James P. Firman, EdD
Aging Well
Vol. 1 No. 4

In 2030, the youngest of today’s 78 million baby boomers in the United States will be 66 years old, and the oldest will be 85. I’ll be 79.

But what will the rest of our lives actually be like? Will we be healthy, active, enjoying life, and looking forward to living well into our 90s, if not to 100? Or will we be beset with multiple illnesses, need to fight the devastating effects of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and finish our lives in an institution?

Most of us don’t want to think about growing older. We are frightened by estimates that as many as 70% of baby boomers will need some form of long-term care. We feel helpless in terms of changing our own future. Like most people, we believe that whether our later years are good or bad is largely a matter of genes or luck, and there isn’t much we can do about it.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Whether America’s largest generation experiences good or bad health in old age—individually and collectively—depends largely on what individuals do over the next 20 years to maintain good health and manage common chronic medical conditions that many either already have or eventually will need to deal with as they age.

The fact is that most baby boomers could probably double their chances of having a long and healthy old age if they would do the following:

• avoid smoking;

• exercise regularly (at least three times per week but preferably five) and lose weight, especially if they are obese;

• avoid falls;

• actively manage high blood pressure, diabetes, or other chronic conditions;

• practice yoga, tai chi, or other forms of meditation and gentle movement; and

• continue to access good medical care.

Just because these behaviors are simple doesn’t mean they are easy. And even if individuals faithfully follow all six of these practices, some will still get sick or need long-term care or die prematurely. However, if most baby boomers would practice these basic healthy behaviors, the generation’s collective health would improve dramatically by 2030.

The National Council on Aging (NCOA) has created evidence-based programs such as chronic care disease self-management, fall prevention, and physical activity best practices that help community-based organizations and those they serve to maintain or improve individuals’ health.

The NCOA also seeks to raise awareness of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension that can lead to serious problems if older adults don’t take care of themselves. In addition, the NCOA offers help to vulnerable and disadvantaged elders to find and enroll in benefits programs that can assist them in better affording their medication or other healthcare needs.

The NCOA believes that emphasizing these types of services can forestall the need for long-term care and promote healthy aging for millions of Americans, including baby boomers.

The 19th-century French philosopher Auguste Comte wrote that “demography is destiny.” He was only partially right. The baby boomer generation will inevitably and inexorably grow old. But individual boomers can dramatically increase their own chances of enjoying a long and healthy old age if they practice these simple behaviors.

— James P. Firman, EdD, is president and CEO of the National Council on Aging. For more than 25 years, he has been a force for innovation in services and programs for older adults. He’s the founder and former CEO of the United Seniors Health Cooperative, a nonprofit consumer organization, and he previously served as a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where he helped develop initiatives in aging and healthcare finance.