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Changing how we see aging

The Old Age of Psychology

The importance of psychology in the new "old" age.

Human populations across the world are changing. They are becoming older, both in terms of the number of older adults and in terms of how many older adults there are to the younger population. Such changes have an effect on numerous issues such as funding and provision of housing, transportation, income and health.

Health is perhaps that most important of these changes because it affects us personally, is usually irreversible, and affects all the other issues directly. With an aging population, pattern of diseases have changed. Throughout our life, most have experienced a death of a close acquaintance due to an infection or an accident. We all remember some great epidemics that have hit the Unites States. Killing 500,000 people, the 1918 outbreak of Spanish influenza was the worst single U.S. epidemic. This was followed in 1949 by the polio epidemic when 42,173 cases were reported with 2,720 deaths. More recently, another polio epidemic three years later in 1952 that killed 3,300 with 57,628 cases reported.

We are going through another epidemic now. An epidemic that was discovered in 1981 with AIDS, with a total estimated 988,376 U.S. AIDS cases with 550,394 deaths. The most recent epidemic was the 2009 H1N1 epidemic known as Swine Flu, affected more than 70 countries with 22 million Americans contracting the virus, and when about 3,900 Americans died.

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Such seemingly catastrophic and unnecessary deaths pail in comparison to deaths from chronic diseases which are becoming more and more common because of an aging population. Chronic diseases--such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis--are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems in the U.S. Seven out of 10 deaths among Americans each year are from chronic diseases. Heart disease, cancer and stroke account for more than 50% of all deaths each year.

And chronic diseases not only cause death they diminish the quality of life. In 2005, 133 million Americans--almost half of all adults--had at least one chronic illness. Arthritis is the most common cause of disability, with nearly 19 million Americans reporting activity limitations. Diabetes continues to be the leading cause of kidney failure, non-accident lower-extremity amputations, and blindness among adults.

Out of this changing situation, the fastest growing cause of death in America is however due to dementia. Unlike heart disease and cancer death rates--which are continuing to decline--deaths from Alzheimer’s disease are on the rise. Alzheimer’s disease is the 5th leading cause of death for adults aged 65 years and older. Driven by the sheer numbers of older adults, an estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. This number has doubled since 1980, and is expected to be as high as 16 million by 2050. Julie Bynum, from the Dartmouth Institute Center for Health Policy Research estimated that Medicare and Medicaid spending for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011 is $130 billion.

While clinical intervention have proved inconsequential in reversing this trend, psychology, and the science of neurology will become more significant disciplines in addressing this new age.

© USA Copyrighted 2013 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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