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Oh, to Be -- 65?

November 2, 2011 By:
Todd H. Goldberg, M.D. | JE Feature
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Are you or some of your loved ones old and sick and miserable?

Is this normal and to be expected? No! It is a common conception that most seniors -- 65 and up -- feel this way; however, the truth may be just the opposite: According to a recent report in USA Today, "Americans aren't hitting their prime till after 65" and "The older generation does it best!"

How can this be? There are several reasons that one might expect seniors to often feel negative and depressed, because, generally, health does decline as you get into this older age bracket; friends and loved ones are lost; and retirement may lead to boredom and lack of money.

Certainly many seniors suffer from a host of health problems such as arthritis and Alzheimer's, and definitely some have a rough time getting along. I see this daily as a geriatrics physician.

On the other hand, many other seniors are doing quite well and seem healthy and happy. They may no longer have to worry about the stress of work and raising children, and despite all the political problems, at least Social Security provides some income security, and Medicare provides some level of universal medical coverage to all seniors.

Also with time may come wisdom, understanding and acceptance of the world and our place in it. Many mature people have finally learned to accept themselves, their family members and life situation, know what they enjoy, and have the time and freedom to do it.

So which is it -- are most seniors well off or disadvantaged? Happy or sad -- especially in comparison to other groups?

An ongoing Gallup-Healthways survey has been attempting to find out these very things. The findings are based on more than a million surveys done since 2008.

Their Well-Being Index, derived from many years of research by Gallup Polls, now includes about 56 questions involving six components: life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment and basic access (to medical care, safe and clean environment, etc.)

The Index has been compared across countries: 45 percent of Americans were judged to be "thriving" (high well-being scores); 51 percent are "struggling" (medium scores); and 4 percent are "suffering" (low scores).

This compares to 82 percent of citizens who are rated as thriving in Denmark, and 40 percent of people are rated to be "suffering" in Zimbabwe.

Interestingly, according to the Healthways research, middle-aged Americans 45 to 64 suffer from the lowest well-being ratings of any age group, due to such factors as obesity, chronic disease and smoking.

Out of a possible total score of 100, the 45- to 64-year-olds averaged 76, while those 65 and over averaged 83 points.

I suspect that Medicare leads seniors to have the highest scores, particularly in the area of access to medical care and health insurance.

Another survey -- of more than 340,000 people -- published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 similarly found that overall feelings of well-being improve as we pass middle age.

Levels of stress, worry and anger reported in a telephone survey in the United States all drop significantly in the 50s and levels of happiness and enjoyment increase. Overall feelings of well-being continue to increase all the way up to the 80s.

Many more seniors these days see themselves as young and stay active and imitate "younger" ways of living.

Maybe every cloud really does have a silver lining. So if you or your children are having particular trouble with the middle-aged years, have hope -- things may actually get better as you get older!

Dr. Todd Goldberg, formerly Geriatrics Fellowship Director at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, is now associate professor and director of geriatrics at WVU Charleston Area Medical Center in Charleston, W. Va.

 

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