A prescription for old age
February 2nd 2010, 10:29
Most of us 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 demise is accompanied by an inevitable decline in our physical health. And perhaps our most terrifying fear is of growing feeble, forgetful and immobile.
The latest evidence-disclosed by WDDTY publisher Bryan Hubbard in this month's special report-suggests that this perception of old age is largely the result of the interfering hands of modern medicine. The fact is that old people are drowning in unnecessary medication. The over-60s make up just 8 per cent of the population, but they are prescribed more than one-third of all medicines dispensed by doctors. In fact, the average 60-plus person is prescribed at least six drugs, all of which are interacting to unknown effect.
As WDDTY has discovered, the major drugs routinely dispensed as just-in-case medicine for the over-60s-from cholesterol-lowering drugs to aspirin-cause all of the conditions that we've come to associate with old age: physical instability; forgetfulness; incontinence; and dementia. At least five major classes of drugs routinely prescribed to seniors cause falls, while many types of drugs cause incontinence. And virtually any drug-even those sold over the counter-is capable of bringing about some sort of cognitive impairment or 'brain fog', with all the hallmarks of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
I saw this close to home with our neighbour 'Sam', who handled all the gardening and physical labour around his daughter's house well into his 80s. One of his party tricks was to race around the garden with his small grandson in a large wheelbarrow. When he became a bit forgetful, his doctor prescribed powerful antipsychotics. In short order, he completely lost his memory, became paranoid and difficult, landed in a nursing home, refused his food and, finally, just gave up and died.
Our neighbour's situation begs the question of which came first: the problem, or the problem caused by the 'solution'? If seniors given drugs present with symptoms, doctors are quick to reach for the prescription pad to hand out yet more drugs to handle what are simply side-effects from a drug that the senior probably didn't need in the first place.
This also begs the question of whether the conditions we associate with old age are inherent to the ageing process, or are largely the outcome of our medicalization of the elderly. How much cognitive decline is inevitable, and how much is due to preventative medicine and a misunderstanding of what the body needs as it ages?
A clue comes from examining the oldest people on earth who live in the so-called 'Blue Zones'. In places like Sardinia, home to more centenarians than anywhere else on the planet, men and women in their tenth and eleventh decades continue to work and remain highly mobile. Their days are full and active, their diet consists of locally grown, fresh, organic food, and they enjoy strong social ties.
We would do well to realize that a prescription drug can never take the place of a purposeful, productive and well-connected life.