A prescription for old age

Aside from rushing around to ready ourselves for the festivities, this time of time of year gives most of us pause.  It’s a time for good cheer, but also for assessing our lives.

Most of us in the West assume that if we’re lucky enough to exceed our threescore and ten – the Biblical estimate of our lifespan — we do so at the expense of our bodies.  We’ve come to expect that the long path to our death is accompanied by an inevitable decline in our physical health. And, of all the things we fear, perhaps the most terrifying is the prospect of decay.  We live with the certainty that we will grow progressively more feeble, forgetful and immobile.

The latest evidence would suggest that this perception of old age has largely resulted from the interfering hands of modern medicine. 

Medicine that ages
The fact is that old people are drowning in unnecessary medication.   The over-60s make up just 8 per cent of the population. Nevertheless, they are prescribed more than a third of all medicines dispensed by doctors. In fact, the average person aged 60 years or over is prescribed at least six drugs – all interacting to unknown effect.

Recent research has shown that the major drugs routinely dispensed as just-in-case medicine for the over-60s from cholesterol-lowering drugs to aspirin, cause all the conditions that we now associate with old age: physical instability, forgetfulness, incontinence and dementia.

At least five major classes of drugs routinely prescribed to seniors cause falls;  many cause incontinence. And virtually any drug – even those sold over the counter – is capable of causing some sort of cognitive impairment or brain fog – with all the hallmarks of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

Sam’s decline
I saw this situation close to home with our neighbor ‘Sam’.  This remarkable man handled all the gardening and physical labor around his daughter’s house well into his eighties.  One of his party tricks was to race around his garden with his small grandson in a large wheelbarrow.

As he turned a bit forgetful, his doctor prescribed him powerful antipsychotics.  His decline was precipitous.  In short order he had completely lost his memory, become paranoid and difficult, landed in a nursing home, refused his food and finally just gave up.   
Our neighbor’s situation begs the question of which came first – the problem or the ‘solution’. If seniors given drugs evidence symptoms, doctors are quick to reach for the prescription pad to hand out yet more drugs to handle what are simply side effects caused by a drug the senior likely doesn’t need in the first place.

Medicalizing the elderly
This situation also raises the issue of whether the conditions we associate with old age are truly inherent to the aging process or largely the outcome of our medicalization of the elderly.  How much cognitive decline is inevitable, and how much the result of preventative medicine and a misunderstanding of what the body needs as it ages?

A clue comes from examining the very oldest people on earth in the so-called   ‘Blue Zones’.  In areas like Sardinia, where there are more centenarians than other places on earth, men and women in their tenth and eleventh decade continue to work and remain highly mobile.  A full and active day, locally grown, fresh, organic food and strong social ties are the usual prescription for a long and healthy span of years. 

We would do well to understand that a prescription drug could never take the place of a productive, well-connected and purposeful life.  

May you treat your body well this holiday season and surround yourself with loving friends.