Canada has undertaken one of the biggest, boldest studies on aging in the world, and the data is just beginning to trickle out.
The good, if predictable, news is that the vast majority of “older” Canadians consider themselves healthy.
More than 90 per cent of participants in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), all of whom are aged 45-85, describe their health as good, very good or excellent, and that holds true even among senior-seniors (75 and older).
The numbers are a refreshing counterpoint to all the “grey tsunami” fear-mongering we hear all too often.
We tend to lose sight of the fact that, while the population is aging, seniors are healthier than any time in history: 85 is the new 65.
Too often we see aging strictly through the lens of decline and loss and illness.
According to the CLSA, 34 per cent of respondents have high blood pressure, 15.9 per cent depression, 15.3 per cent diabetes, 13.2 per cent cancer, 11.8 per cent asthma, 10.9 per cent hypothyroidism, 9 per cent heart disease, 8.5 per cent osteoarthritis, and 5.5 per cent chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
While growing older entails new aches and pains, we forget that most are manageable.
As people age, they don’t just need sickness care, they need communities and services that allow them to keep living, and thriving.
The purpose of the $41-million Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is to follow more than 50,000 Canadians for at least 20 years to provide a sense of how our health evolves as we age.
Doing so should not only provide a realistic – not catastrophic – picture of this important segment of the population but, more importantly, guide our health and social policies.
The new data, which was collected between 2010 and 2015, simply provides a baseline. As study participants age, researchers should be able to spot patterns that help identify why some people age well and others don’t, and interventions that can help.
So far, there is mostly data from questionnaires, but researchers are also collecting biological samples that will allow analysis of genetic and epigenetic factors.
Already a few little clues are emerging about key determinants of health.
Among the CLSA participants, 33 per cent have family incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, and most of the rest report that they are managing well financially. But 6 per cent have annual incomes of less than $20,000.
One of the most surprising numbers in the new report is that 20 per cent of women and 30 per cent of men retirees “unretired” because they needed the money.
You can’t age well if you can’t make ends meet at the end of each month.
Eighty-five per cent of those aged 45-85 own their own homes, but what kind of policies are in place to allow people to age safely at home?
And how are we adapting our cities, public spaces, workplaces, hospitals, community centres and homes to the reality that 1 in 10 people over the age of 45 and 1 in 4 people over the age of 75 uses a mobility device such as a cane, scooter or wheelchair?
The CLSA study also features some disturbing numbers on the growing problems of loneliness: 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over the age of 75 are socially isolated, which can have the same negative effect on an individual’s life span as smoking.
As the population ages, caregiving is also becoming a hot-button issue.
Currently, 8.1 per cent of those surveyed receive care, rising to 36 per cent of those over the age of 75. But a whopping 38 per cent of the CLSA participants provide care to loved ones. This unpaid work takes its toll on many, especially older women taking care of their elderly spouses.
These data are a reminder of the crying need for respite care and more flexible workplace policies so caregivers do not put their own health at risk.
As Dr. Steven Hoffman and Dr. Yves Joanette, scientific directors respectively of the CIHR Institute of Aging and the CIHR Institute of Population and Public Health, write in the introduction to the first CLSA report, the fact that Canadians are living longer is important, “but we have to make sure that these extra years are worth living: More time to work and contribute wealth and wisdom to society, as well as more time to enjoy with family and friends.”
It’s not aging we should fear; it’s having our elders live in poverty and isolation, without a sense of purpose.