America’s Aging Population Drives Interest in Gerontology and Health Care
Great news! We’re living longer. Due to many factors – including medical advances, better hygiene, improved nutrition, and increased focus on health and wellness – life expectancy has been steadily increasing for decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics Reports, the life expectancy for children born in the United States in 1920 was 56.4 years. For babies born in 2003, the expected lifespan jumped up to 77.4 years. And that trend looks like it will continue. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of seniors living in America will nearly double between 2012 and 2050.
As America grows grayer, the niche for professionals who understand the needs of an aging population will continue to expand. Therefore, the fields of health care and gerontology will become increasingly important. Gerontology is the scientific study of old age, the aging process, and the unique issues that the elderly will likely experience. It covers not only the physical aspects of aging, but also the social, economic, spiritual, legal, and psychological aspects.
One of the major focuses of gerontology is caring for the medical needs of an elderly population. Health care workers are learning to deal with the long-term effects of aging. This work includes the treatment of chronic illnesses and diseases, such as diabetes, as well as conditions like osteoporosis and hormonal changes that often accompany old age.
Of course, one of the most effective methods to treat many age-related medical conditions is to prevent them from ever happening. Accordingly, the principles of preventative medicine are a key component of health care and gerontology. The idea is to ingrain healthy habits while people are still young so they will stave off physical decline as long as possible. Gerontologists advocate active lifestyles that incorporate frequent exercise, smart nutritional choices, and check-ups with doctors and dentists.
Another major medical concern for older Americans is mental health. We’ve all heard people joke about so-called “senior moments” of forgetfulness and mental fog, but it becomes a serious problem when those moments turn into dementia. The term “dementia” covers more than 100 diseases and conditions that cause the death or malfunction of brain cells, but the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that one third of all seniors die with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia.
Preventing dementia has proven difficult, but gerontologists have been successful in helping people reduce their risk factors. The chances of developing dementia increase for individuals who smoke, are obese, have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and/or poor cardiovascular health. All of those conditions are, fortunately, treatable.
Aging individuals also tend to retain mental acuity and experience better overall health if they remain socially active. In a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers concluded that seniors can add years to their lives by engaging in simple social activities like going out to eat or playing bingo. The exact reason for this connection is unclear, but researchers hypothesize that social engagement creates changes in the brain that fend off cognitive decline and have a positive influence on physical processes regulated by the brain. Because of this connection, gerontologists working in senior living communities and senior care facilities will often place an emphasis on social activities.
Besides the physical, mental, and social aspects of old age, there are many other topics that professionals need to consider when working with aging Americans. For example, financial professionals can help seniors plan for retirement to ensure they will have enough money to live comfortably during their golden years. Likewise, legal professionals can help seniors write wills and set up trusts.
Across most industries, an understanding of gerontology will help professionals work with clients and customers in the years ahead. If you would like to learn more about this field, consider pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Gerontology. You can explore all of the various degrees in health care here.
Written by Erik Siwak, Communications Manager for Bridgepoint Education
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