What You Don't Know About Aging Could Kill You

By Sue Chen, CEO of NOVA Medical Products

Years ago, when I began visiting assisted living communities, I wanted to get to know my company's customers--older adults who would use stylish mobility equipment. I vividly recall a wall of pictures of the residents in their early 20s graced the entrance of one home. Many of the pictures showed handsome men and women in uniform, World War II veterans. Their eyes, like their futures, were hopeful and bright. I felt like I needed to know these people, to understand what they all must have experienced in life.

But as I interacted with the residents, they all seemed surprised at my enthusiasm and interest. Some even told me that no one--even family members--had asked them about those "good old times" in years. I was saddened to hear that, but I know that this is the reality. As people age, those around them generally engage less and less--even when those people are war heroes who have flown fighter jets and nursed and saved the wounded.

In our society, adults 65 and older are often overlooked, and sometimes even mistreated. "There is mounting evidence to suggest that older adults constitute a stigmatized group in the United States (and in most Western societies)," according to a study by National Research Council (US) Committee on Aging Frontiers in Social Psychology, Personality, and Adult Developmental Psychology. If we behaved toward any other segment of the population the way we do toward older adults--imagine we engaged this little with toddlers--there would be a public outcry. Unfortunately, their needs, rights, and lives are regularly pushed aside, and most people seem to be unaware of it.

Aging is rarely talked about, even though it happens to all of us, every day. Even people who are 70 or 80 don't really think of themselves as aging. Why is it that we're so reluctant to talk about aging and the needs of aging adults? Why do we ignore and cast aside the older adults in our lives?

The reason is simple: We're scared to think about getting older. Studies have shown that painful events cause more stress when they're further in the future. That may be why, in a recent survey by Aegis Living, young Millennials were just as scared of aging as older Boomers and Gen-Xers.

But why does the idea of aging have to be a painful event at all?

For most people, the realization that they're aging comes when they are no longer able to do something that they once could, when they start losing their independence. Until that point, it's hard to actually understand that one day they're not going to be able to drive, bathe themselves, or do other everyday things that they once took for granted.

This is not good enough. We need to think about aging earlier, for the sake of our loved ones and ourselves.

Early intervention can boost quality of life--and save lives.

We can't prevent aging. But preventative measures can be taken to improve medical and psychological treatment--especially for issues like depression, memory loss, and loss of mobility.

For example, falls are the leading cause of nonfatal and fatal injuries in adults over the age of 65 according to the CDC, with one in three older adults having preventable falls. Affecting millions of people, these falls add up to $34 billion of direct medical costs each year.

This brings into question the healthcare community's commitment the unprecedented health crises aging adults face. Doctors must take proactive measures to prevent falls, such as adjusting medication and providing exercise regimens to strengthen muscles and balance. The design of walkers and other assisted mobility devices needs to be reevaluated as well. Mobility devices are used by more than one-quarter of Americans, and in the past eight years, the number has increased by more than 50 percent. Yet the design of the walker hasn't dramatically changed in 50 years.

And even worse than the lack of innovation is the fact that the original 1965 walker design limited the person's mobility: millions of tennis balls were affixed to the walker's legs in attempts to make it glide. This is not only a depressing image of aging, but is actually unsafe, and unsanitary.

Negative stereotypes keep older people from receiving the care they need

Many older adults also face discrimination--and it starts young. Studies have found our culture breeds ageist attitudes in children as young as six. These attitudes have been proven to affect older adults through discrimination by doctors, prospective employers, and potential landlords.

This type of discrimination is not only problematic in terms of older adults' lifestyles, but it can also affect the treatment they receive for physical and mental health issues. Due to misconceptions and prejudices about the "normal course of aging," some doctors and nurses will forego screening tests or taking preventative measures against certain illnesses, according to a National Research Council Study. Depression routinely goes undiagnosed or untreated in aging adults, getting mislabeled as dementia or written off as a normal side effect of aging.

Their negative expectations of recovery--based purely on the patient's age--can also become self-fulfilling prophecies. For instance, we generally think of memory loss as a "normal" side effect of aging. But one study found that in China, where negative stereotypes of aging are less common, older adults often perform as well as or even better than their younger counterparts on memory tests. Signs of aging, like so many other human experiences, are largely in our own heads.

We have no choice but to face our own fears about aging

According to a 2012 survey commissioned by Pfizer and several health advocacy organizations, 39% of the 1,000+ adults surveyed generally felt "optimistic" about growing old. But nearly as many--36%--said they felt "uneasy." Their fears were less about dying and more about losing independence and living in pain.

Yet whatever our fears surrounding aging are, we cannot let them stop us from talking about getting older.

As a society, we haven't had the conversations that we need to have. We have to start talking about aging now to prevent further discrimination, and to tackle debilitating and often fatal health risks such as falling. We also need to face the oncoming financial disaster guaranteed to take place as the older adult population grows with the aging Baby Boomer generation. Older adults already comprise a large segment of our population, and their numbers are only increasing: this population will double from 35 million in 2000 to more than 70 million in 2030, placing huge demands on our infrastructure, including hospitals, in-home care, assisted living, Medicare, and social security.

So, what are some things we can do to expand our awareness and begin advocating for older adults' rights? First of all, we need to think honestly about our own aging, as well as our parents' aging. We need to learn to see aging as a natural process everyone goes through, not something to be feared and ignored. We also need to invest in better technology, treatments, and care for older adults. We should give them as much consideration and attention as we give our children.

Most importantly, in addition to talking, we need to listen. Our parents' generation rarely asks for more--when they do voice a need, it shouldn't be ignored. We need to engage with them. We need to hear, know, and remember their stories. We are truly losing a tremendous source of history, wisdom and--most of all--our own identities.

With contribution by Alana Saltz and Kyle Bourassa of Hippo Reads.