Above: By living longer, healthier lives, today’s older adults are expanding their years in ‘middle age.’ Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Healthy Aging Month, observed annually each September, brings us this reminder from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The population of older Americans is growing and living longer than ever.

Adding years can result in an extended middle age—and those years can become a double-edged sword, medical experts say. Increased longevity is a huge blessing for many. But with more years, there is an increased chance to develop chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and forms of dementia.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The gift of more middle age years might be changing our lifespans and adding a more productive and creative period. Just don’t let it lead to an expanded waistline and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

Advice and programs for living longer and healthier

Rodrick Lawton MD
Hospitalist Rodrick Lawton MD, with WellStar Health System

The healthcare systems in our area are involved in helping older adults stay healthier longer. Emory, Northside, Piedmont and WellStar all have professionals, programs and/or studies dedicated to the well-being of the senior population.

Dr. Rodrick Lawton, a hospitalist with WellStar’s Cobb Hospital, said that physical activity, as much as reasonably possible, is important. “We will all see our activity levels decline as we age, however, we should continue to make activity a priority,” Lawton said.

He added that it’s also important to stay mentally engaged. “You would be surprised how something as simple as scanning the morning paper can keep your mind sharp.” He encourages his patients to read books, magazines and a daily newspaper.

Lawton recommended a variety of programs to help seniors learn about important topics relevant to healthy aging, such as WellStar’s “Speaking about Wellness for Seniors” quarterly series.

“As physicians, we must encourage our patients to remain active as it yields better outcomes,” Lawton said.

Geriatric nurses help seniors

Jennifer Davenport, a clinical nurse specialist and her colleagues are hoping to change negative concepts of aging to more positive ones. “Ageism is still quite prevalent in our society,” she said.

Healthy aging is a prominent factor in their day-to-day work. “Northside Hospital offers geriatric specialty training for our nurses, along with other disciplines,” Davenport said. She is personally working with the medical and geriatric population at Northside’s Atlanta campus and remains enthusiastic about her role.

“There is a shortage of geriatricians,” Davenport admitted. Therefore, she and her nurse colleagues encourage patients to “advocate for themselves.” That means they teach patients to “ask questions and voice concerns until someone listens.”

Northside is particularly proud of its ongoing NICHE program (Nurses Improving Care for Health system Elders), said Davenport. The NICHE teams include multi-disciplinary professionals who work to improve patient care, especially when it comes to transferring older patients. Such transitions might include safely sending a patient from a hospital to their home or to other healthcare providers, such a rehabilitation facility.

Community programs

Another well-regarded program is Sixty Plus Services at Piedmont Healthcare, which continues to help older patients through their “service phone line” and more.

The program was created in 1987 to promote healthy aging and offer a special continuum of geriatric services. It provides programs, education, support and counseling for older adults, which may—when appropriate—include family members and caregivers.

“Sixty Plus Services is our resource for seniors to support the physical, emotional and financial changes associated with aging,” explained Natalie Phillips, nurse and manager of Transitional Care/Sixty Plus programs throughout Piedmont Healthcare.

Healthy aging study

Emory University embarked on the largest clinical research study ever conducted in Atlanta a few years ago—the Healthy Aging Study. Its aim is to learn about aging and age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and diabetes, by learning more about lifestyle choices from the public.

Girl and grandmother
A longer life can mean more time with family. Image by Kim Heimbuch from Pixabay

At its inception, researchers expected to recruit 100,000 volunteers as participants, according to their website. The only requirements are that participants must be at least 18 years of age and able to read, write and understand English.

“We already have over 15,000 participants in the study,” said Dr. Michele Marcus, a professor with the schools of public health and medicine. “The Emory Healthy Aging Study is an exciting clinical research endeavor to further our understanding of how we age as a population.”

Study participants sign up online, complete a brief health history questionnaire and are asked—occasionally—to respond to surveys and take online memory tests.

“Some individuals will be invited to come to the Emory Brain Center for a more complete assessment,” explained Marcus.

It’s not too late to change

If you think it’s too late to ‘re-invent’ yourself, you need to think again,” said Carolyn Worthington, publisher of Healthy Aging Magazine, healthyaging.net. “It’s never too late to find a new career, a new sport, passion or hobby.”

Worthington hopes readers will use the entire Healthy Aging Month of September as the motivation to take stock of where they’ve been and to think about what they would really like to do.

Take Betsy Bean, owner and publisher of BoomAthens Magazine, for instance. She is a positive role model for longevity.

With her late-in-life move to Athens, Ga., 72-year-old Bean decided to start a magazine. “BoomAthens is specifically for seniors and it has a different twist,” she said. Bean explained her mission: “To share very honest stories of Boomers as they navigate the huge social changes that mark their lives.”

She is passionate about her work and feels like she’s making something good happen for the Boomers who live in and around Athens. “I have to stay engaged in something meaningful,” Bean said. “It keeps my mind and my body agile.”

The advances in science and technology mean that seniors in industrialized countries can expect to live well into their 80s—and perhaps beyond. According to the CDC, about 10,000 people turn 65 daily and 80% of people age 50 and older have plans to work past 65.

The big question is: how can we make this expanding middle age contribute to better and healthier outcomes for us?

For additional information

Emory Healthy Aging Study: 404-727-4877, healthyaging.emory.edu

Northside Hospital Healthcare System: 404-845-5555, northside.com

Piedmont Sixty Plus: 404-605-3867, piedmont.org/sixty-plus/sixty-plus-home

WellStar Health System: 770-956-7827, wellstar.org

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.