Highlights from the 2015 Aging in America Conference

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? This question, attributed to Satchel Paige, was mentioned in several of the sessions I attended this week at the American Society on Aging’s Aging in America Conference, held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago. The message underlying many presentations is that we should not be focusing on aging, so much as on living.

Longevity is a reality; between 2010 and 2030, those aged 65 and over will comprise 81% of the population in the United States. And of those over age 85, approximately 47% will have some form of dementia, with the most prevalent kind being Alzheimer’s disease. This will impose a public healthcare burden, and there seems to be fewer and fewer people going into the geriatric medical professions. In addition, there will most likely be a caregiving crunch, since there will be fewer children to serve as caregivers, more women in the workforce and so unable to assume that role, and members of families living in different parts of the country.

The good news is that with further research and technological innovation, we should hopefully be able to screen and detect cognitive problems earlier, provide more varied interventions to help postpone or prevent dementia, and care for those identified with this problem. Technology is focusing on developing tools that can help monitor patients’ behaviors even if they live alone, to provide real time data to caregivers who are not immediately present. These include sensors on refrigerators, toilets, beds, etc., for example, which keep track of patients’ eating, eliminating, and sleeping. Some medicines can also be supplied with tracers that indicate consumption by a patient when they pass through the person’s body.

Cognitive training has been associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline and a reduction either in the number of people progressing from Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) to Alzheimer’s disease, or a slowing of that progression. Many programs are engaging older adults in the arts and creative enterprises as a means of providing both socialization and brain stimulation. Programs that involve dance and music can even help those with Parkinson’s or dementia; one woman with PD reported being once again able to “do my buttons” on her blouse. Often these programs pair older adults with younger people. Intergenerational efforts benefit both the aged and the younger population, especially in helping reduce ageism– the tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for employment. A pharmacy student who worked with an older adult on a series of art projects commented that, “It’s refreshing to bridge the intergenerational gap AND learn a new skill at the same time…It’s also nice to get to know older adults for who they are instead of what medications they’re taking — it humanizes both of us.”  Another participant wrote, “I’ve learned to never judge a person based on a stereotype… and by doing so I’ve learned that age is nothing but a number.”

It is exciting to see so many people making efforts to improve quality of living for older adults. We boomers who are engaged in this work may recognize that, in a way, we are also making the world better for our future selves!