Americans living longer creates new set of issues

Published 1:45 pm Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Aren’t science, medicine and technology wonderful?

Just a century ago, life expectancy was just about 50 years because of the number of diseases for which we have since found preventatives and cures. Now we’re living well into our 80s with the 85+ age group the fastest growing segment of our population.

Living to 100 is no longer seen as a unique miracle, but a much more common occurrence. With increased longevity, however, comes the real diseases of aging which include heart disease, the number 1 killer of Americans, plus the far more feared diseases of cancer and Alzheimer’s.

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Notwithstanding that most boomers, the first of who were born in 1946, will begin turning 65 in January 2011. Most have very little money set aside for their looming retirements.

This is compounded by the big three segments of our Federal Budget – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security already showing signs of serious financial strains.

We’re also facing a tremendous shortage of physicians trained to specifically care for our aging population. There’s no money in the geriatric specialty, and Medicare reimbursements could be reduced by about 23 percent in 2011. Keep in mind our current senior population is about 30-million Americans.

It should shock you to learn that in 2003 only 167 American-trained doctors completed the specialty needed to be certified geriatricians. As recently as 2007, the number of American-trained physicians that sought geriatric specialization fell to only 91 new doctors nationwide.

So, who will be caring for you as you reach your 80s, 90s and beyond?

If you answered primary physicians, you’re correct, but even they are now dealing with challenges created by changes to Medicare and other healthcare insurances that threaten the financial viability of their practices.

While skilled, general physicians are not trained to pick up on the unique problems of diagnosing the aging. In the short time they have per patient, they could easily miss a problem entirely or worse, misdiagnose a problem and prescribe medicines that exacerbate the condition.

The situation gets even more dire for those Dr. Stephen Jones, a geriatrician and expert in gerontology and the director of the Center for Healthy Aging at Greenwich Hospital, calls Geri-Boomers. Geri-Boomers may find themselves caught not in the sandwich generation caring for their kids and aging parents, but trapped in what Dr. Jones calls the “Club Sandwich Generation.” As we live longer, Geri-Boomers may be caring for themselves, their parents and their own grandchildren as their adult children struggle with economic survival.

The truth is our ability to push the longevity envelope has been more successful than our ability to deal with the diseases of aging.

Too few specialists, over-burdened general practitioners and inadequately funded programs such as Medicare, already straining under today’s burdens of only 30-million seniors could combine to form the perfect storm for aging.

Add to those facts the impact of Alzheimer’s disease. Today with almost 5-million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, doctors are diagnosing one new case every 71 seconds. One out of every eight Americans 65 and older is being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and it’s even worse for those at age 85. In the 85-plus group, half of all seniors face the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Of the elderly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the majority are women who outlive men, meaning there are new concerns regarding their spending their later years widowed and often in or near poverty. Those numbers will increase from the current five million cases today to more than 30 million by 2030.

As you contemplate aging, and delight in the prospect of living to 80, 90 or longer, be careful what you ask for, because aging isn’t for sissies, and as of today, your prospects of a financially sound and healthy future face staggering odds and challenges.

Ron Kauffman is a geriatric care manager and certified senior advisor. He is the author of Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease, available at, where you can also listen to his weekly Podcasts. He can be reached at 561-818-0039 or by email at