Cure Aging? How About Curing Attitudes?

The head of AARP calls for Americans to 'Disrupt Aging' in her new book

Jo Ann Jenkins has had it with those snarky birthday cards. You know, the ones that portray anyone over 30, 40 or 50 as dangling over the rocky cliff of decrepitude.

Jenkins, the CEO of AARP, is not anywhere near slowing down in her life as a 58-year-old executive, wife and mother — and she doesn’t think other boomers are, either.

In fact, she argues in her new book, Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age, our lives hold tremendous promise and potential well into our 50s, 60s and beyond.

“People 50 and older are still living in ways that reflect the attitudes, activism, and aspirations of the boomer generation,” she writes. “That optimism — that desire to live life on our own terms, to make a difference, to change the world — is very real. It confirms my belief that no one’s possibilities should be limited by their age and that experience has value.”

Cure Misperceptions, Not Aging

Jenkins describes a panel she was on with 21-year-old Laura Deming, a brilliant scientist who attended MIT at age 14 and later formed a venture capital firm to research potential solutions for age-related diseases. Deming’s mission was to “find a cure for aging,” Jenkins writes. While greatly impressed by Deming’s accomplishments, Jenkins bristled at the idea that society should cure aging.

People 50 and older ... look forward to having the time and the freedom to do what they want to do and to enjoy life on their own terms.

— Jo Ann Jenkins, AARP

Jenkins told Next Avenue this week that we need to challenge outdated beliefs equating older age with sickness and burden, and change the way we think about our futures.

“How would we start to live our lives if we thought of middle age as beginning at 65 instead of 50?” she asked.

Healthy Living Is Key

One vital aspect to living our best lives as we age, said Jenkins, is diet and exercise.

Her mother died of diabetes, and “I’m on the verge of having it,” Jenkins said. While writing the book, the message came through to her even more clearly: she needed to take action.

Jenkins now tries to tame her weakness for chocolate, has bought a Fitbit to track her physical activity and has teamed up with her family to keep each other accountable. Her 26-year-old son “works out three or four hours a day — he is constantly texting me to see how I’m doing on my 10,000 steps,” she said.

An Excerpt From Disrupt Aging

The following is an excerpt from Jenkins’s book, which was released April 5:

As more and more of us live longer and seek to take full advantage of our extended middle age, we are becoming more focused on how to remain physically and mentally fit in order to live life to the fullest. Health is not a separate part of our lives but the glue that holds the different aspects of our complex lives together. It affects how we relate to our family and friends and our ability to engage in work and leisure activities as well as to be active, engaged members of our communities.

We don’t want to be held back by physical ailments, aches and pains, or mental fatigue; we want to be able to manage the changes in our health as we age, and we don’t want to feel too tired to do the things we want to do. As such, we are now seeking more and better ways to take control of our own health.

A Different Focus

Under our current model of health care, doctors and clinicians tend to see health through a lens of diminishment — they try to find out what’s wrong with you and treat it using the tools at their disposal, such as medications, surgery and physical therapy. As consumers, however, we’re more interested in questions like: How can I avoid getting sick in the first place? How do I maintain my vitality? How do I maintain my health so I can do the things I want to do in life?

Disrupt Aging Author and Book Embed

Whereas the clinician lens is more about test results, infection rates, morbidity factors and so forth, for consumers, health is becoming more of a tool for living your best life. Think about hearing loss. To many a doctor, hearing loss is seen as a physical disability, a condition or an illness to be diagnosed and treated. But for us as consumers, it’s a quality-of-life issue that affects our ability to live fully each day. It can lead to strained relationships, loss of independence, isolation, perhaps even safety issues.

While the doctors are concerned with the medical outcomes, we want to be able to live well every day and continue to be engaged in society. So the question then becomes: How do we translate the medical management and advice into our daily lives so that it can help us live well every day?

The Buck Stops Here

As more of us see ourselves as consumers when addressing our own health care, we’re taking more responsibility for our own health, seeking more and better information to help us make healthier decisions, and we’re increasingly asking our doctors and clinicians to help us understand how to translate medical outcomes into acts of daily living while considering our values, lifestyle, and the impact those outcomes will have on our relationships. We’re asking them to tell us what we can do to take more control of our own health, and often that means much more than “take this pill.”

But more than that, we want our health care providers to work with us to help us adopt lifestyle changes that lead us toward physical and mental fitness and enhance our well-being, not just treat our ailments.

Since I started working on this book and thinking personally about a lot of these issues, I’ve begun to make important health changes in my own life. I’m drinking more water, have cut out all sodas, and am eating more fruits and vegetables. My personal physician, Dr. Linda Coleman, frequently texts me around 5:30 in the morning — she knows I’m up — with a nice little note asking me if I’m walking. I’ll admit I don’t always stick to her advice, but I recently purchased a Fitbit, and it’s a great tool. I exercise more because I can actually see when I’m not active through the day.

Looking Ahead

Most of the time when I talk to people 50 and older, I find them to be incredibly optimistic about their futures. They look forward to having the time and the freedom to do what they want to do and to enjoy life on their own terms. And they have a heightened awareness of the role health plays in their ability to do that. Mostly they talk about having the energy to do things like hiking, keeping up with their grandchildren, taking that vacation they always wanted to take and just doing day-to-day chores.

But they also talk about doing whatever they can to avoid debilitating illness. Most people, as they get older, don’t fear death nearly as much as they fear becoming terminally ill or incapacitated, losing their independence and becoming a burden on family and friends. So they become more serious about finding ways to maintain their health and well-being, avoid disease and develop habits to promote good health.

Driving a Market

That, in part, explains why people 50 and over are at the forefront of a $500 billion consumer health care market that is driven by prevention and wellness products and services, which includes vitamins, nutritional supplements, weight management products and programs, fortified foods and beverages, exercise programs and equipment, fitness club memberships, and so forth. Retailers such as Walgreens, Target and CVS now offer in-store clinics, preventive screenings and nutrition assessments.

And the digital world is exploding with health information and health apps designed to help people live well. According to one study, in 2014, 96 percent of Americans with internet access used it to look up health information. WebMD alone received 150 million unique visitors in 2014, and the two leading mobile platforms, iOS and Android, surpassed 100,000 apps, with most addressing fitness or chronic illness.

Employers, many seeking ways to control their rising health care costs, are also playing an increasing role in promoting wellness and well-being. Ninety percent of U.S. companies with 200 or more employees now have wellness programs. These often include gym and exercise discounts, smoking-cessation programs, lifestyle coaching, nutrition classes, free flu shots and preventive screenings.

Wellness in Obamacare

The government is also getting on the bandwagon to promote health and well-being. The Affordable Care Act encourages employer wellness programs by offering companies financial incentives and provides Medicare beneficiaries with a free annual “wellness visit” as well as vaccinations and free screenings for diabetes, cholesterol and cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that 71 million people in private health plans and another 34 million Medicare beneficiaries had taken advantage of at least one free preventive service such as a mammogram, flu shot or wellness visit.

What all of this also tells us is that people are looking for ways to prevent disease and promote health and well-being outside the doctor’s office. As consumers, we are looking for more and better products, services and programs to help us prevent disease, promote health and achieve well-being. Employers, insurers and government are investing and coming up with new employee wellness programs like those mentioned above as well as other incentives to get us to focus more on wellness and well-being.

System Dragging Its Feet

So why has our health care system been so slow to make the transition from primarily focusing on treatment to that of prevention, health promotion, and well-being? … Why is there still such a disconnect between the way physicians and clinicians view outcomes and the way consumers view outcomes?

The most obvious answer is that our medical system is set up to benefit more when we are ill than when we are healthy. There is no real financial incentive for those in the medical system to embrace preventive medicine.

But another part of the answer lies in the nature of the doctor-patient relationship. Doctors, nurses and clinicians can provide us with valuable information on how to improve our medical outcomes, but we must be able to take that information and put into practice the behaviors that will help us live better every day. We must shift from being dependent patients to empowered consumers.


By Emily Gurnon
Emily Gurnon is the former Senior Content Editor covering health and caregiving for Next Avenue. She previously spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Paul.@EmilyGurnon

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