The magazine of the UW School of Public Health

From the Dean

Not Your Grandparents' Golden Years

According to the US Census Bureau, today’s seniors are very different from previous generations. Americans are living longer and, in general, entering old age healthier. When—if—we become disabled, we’re doing so far later in life than our parents and grandparents did. pat_wahl.jpg

As a result, there are more of us; there were 36 million Americans over 65 in 2000, and it’s expected that there will be 72 million over 65 in 2030. The fastest growing age group in the country isn’t toddlers or teenagers—it’s people over the age of 85.

Although today’s Americans are generally healthier when they reach their senior years than were previous generations, the fact is that living longer has consequences, as does the rising rate of obesity, which could neutralize the positive trends set by other health improvements.

A growing population of seniors and the usual consequences of aging—Alzheimer’s disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke, to name a few—will mean, of course, a higher demand for health care and social services. By 2030, US health care costs are projected to increase by 25 percent. Faculty at the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine are engaged in a number of research projects designed to contribute to healthy aging and lower health care costs. Our researchers are investigating a range of issues:
• Risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke in the elderly
• Physical and cognitive functioning in the elderly
• Ways to delay or prevent dementia in older adults
• Genetic and environmental risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease
• Health services for older adults
• Obesity in the elderly

Among our School’s most visible efforts on behalf of our older citizens are those undertaken through the Health Promotion Research Center (HPRC). Some of the Center’s work in improving fitness is described on page 20 in this issue of Northwest Public Health. HPRC is one of 33 Prevention Research Centers funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These Centers are located in academic institutions across the country, and they collaborate with community-based partners to conduct research intended to decrease disease and disability.

In addition to managing several projects designed to increase physical activity among older adults—by increasing opportunities, removing barriers, and linking patients to community-based programs and support systems—the HPRC also studies minor depression among seniors through its PEARLS (Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives for Seniors) project. Through structured behavioral therapy and “pleasant-event scheduling,” PEARLS eliminated depression for more than one-third of participants and reduced depressive symptoms by half for 43 percent of participants.

Although not directed at older adults, the Center’s efforts to promote healthful behaviors in the workplace have implications for health in later life. For instance, were more employers to offer smoking cessation services, they would lower their health insurance costs and have a healthier workforce. And today’s healthier workers would become tomorrow’s healthier retirees.

This issue of Northwest Public Health covers an impressive array of articles on studies and projects geared to understanding and helping our aging population. Once again, I’m pleased to get a glimpse of the health-promoting initiatives under way throughout the Northwest region and to have the opportunity to highlight some of the research projects in our School contributing to those efforts.

Patricia Wahl, Dean
School of Public Health and Community Medicine