The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story highlighting a new “problem” that one health club in Japan was experiencing. Members were miffed because they couldn’t use the bench-press machine.
Older patrons were, instead, treating the machine as an actual bench.
Rather than pumping iron, a group of elderly women regularly sat on the bench to chat. For one younger member, the last straw came when she tried to work her pecs and triceps, only to find the group congregated on the machine, chatting about the best way to pickle vegetables.
The would-be bench-presser promptly quit the club. She now gets her exercise by jogging with her husband.
The anecdote, as intended, made me chuckle. But it also underscored some more universal points about a population that — in Japan, but also in the U.S. and in Oklahoma — is aging rapidly.
Today, 19 percent of Oklahomans (including me!) are over the age of 60. By 2035, that figure is projected to be 1 in 4.
These statistics are not unique to our state. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that in 2035, roughly 82 million Americans — almost double the number from 2012 — will be 65 or older.
People over the age of 80 represent the fastest growing segment of the American populace. And if you make it to 80, you have a good chance of making it to 90, and beyond.
While we like to imagine that our golden years will be just that, there’s no denying that our bodies will ultimately fail us. Flesh wrinkles and sags. Strength ebbs. We lose dexterity, speed and balance. We fall ill more often and more gravely.
Keeping with national trends, more than half of all Oklahomans aged 65-plus report that arthritis or other joint issues limit their daily activities. And if we’re fortunate enough to live to 85, this milestone also comes with quite a booby prize: Our likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease is 1 in 3.
Obviously, many burdens come with a population composed increasingly of older, sicker folks. Unfortunately, as the ranks of those in their so-called Third and Fourth Ages swell, the ranks of geriatricians, the physicians who specialize in caring for older people, are thinning.
As a specialty, geriatrics has only existed for less than a half-century. Although the need for geriatricians could not be greater, their visibility and status within the medical profession remains low. Practitioners are among the lowest compensated physicians, their paychecks only a shadow of what specialists like surgeons and radiologists take home.
In her book “Elderhood,” Louise Aronson, M.D., tells of asking a patient what a geriatrician is. He responds, “A person who scoops ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s.”
In Oklahoma, if reach the age of 65, you can expect to live about another 18 years. However, you can only expect to live only the first 12 of those years in good health; on average, illness and disability plague the final half-dozen years of our lives.
Although we imagine we’d like to live forever, in reality, what we’d like to do is extend that period of healthy lifespan, or healthspan, so that it more closely coincides with our lifespan. Most of us would prefer 85 good years of life to 80 good ones followed by 10 miserable ones.
At the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, we’ve developed an entire research program devoted to this issue. The 11 laboratories in OMRF’s Aging & Metabolism group are studying topics like age-related muscle loss and macular degeneration, all in an effort to find strategies to maximize healthspan.
Genes, of course, play a major role this equation. But so do a host of factors within our control: diet, alcohol and tobacco use, exercise, how well we cope with stress.
Governments, of course, have made it a goal to increase the wellness of aging populations, as this group consumes an outsized chunk of healthcare spending. To this end, Oklahoma City has already built a pair of senior health and wellness centers as part of the MAPS initiative, and two more are on the way.
Oklahoma seniors have flocked to the first two centers; expansion and renovation plans for both are already in the works. With the two new centers, scheduled to come online in 2021 and 2022, planners are seeking to avoid some of the issues – such as inadequate locker room and shower facilities – now hamstringing the first two centers.
I have not been involved with these discussions. But we should probably take a lesson from Japan, where half of all gym revenues come from people over 60.
Yes, I’m talking about bench presses. Just make sure there are plenty of them.