Aging And Life Quality: What Does The Future Hold?

Photo: Reut R. CohenLos Angeles is often perceived as the land of perpetual youth. The Sunset Strip is filled with aspiring models and actors, some beyond their prime, perfectly coiffed, with sprayed on tans and face-lifts galore.

There is a sense of trepidation people feel about aging, so it's hardly surprising so many of us try to delay it as long as possible. Yet we can't ignore that our population is now aging faster than ever before.

"There seems to be a sort of fear, if you will, of aging," said Valentine Villa, a Cal State Los Angeles Social Work professor and the director of the Applied Gerontology Institute. "In aggregate we are doing better in terms of health, in terms of socioeconomic status. We've been living longer."

However, there are shortcomings.

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"Latinos, African Americans, some Asian and Native Americans don't do as well as non-Hispanic whites," said Villa.

Beyond demographic concerns exist challenges that health care providers will face as aging populations experience more long-term, debilitating illnesses that will require around-the-clock care.

As people live longer, many are now becoming old enough to die from chronic diseases like Alzheimer's, where once coronary problems were the culprits for early death.

"A lot of those people who would have died of heart attacks are now dying of Alzheimer's that they would never had got because they would have died early," said Kelvin Davies, professor at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. "We used to have coronary care units... that was the shining star of hospitals twenty years ago."

Davies' research looks at why people age. His recent study published in August in the Journals of Gerontology found that Lon protease, an enzyme, or in layman's terms, a substance that increases the rate of a reaction, is mobilized less as a cell ages. The process can be likened to rusting or food spoiling. Oxidation in the human body causes damage to tissue. When less of the Lon protease isn't mobilized as frequently, cells are less protected from oxidative damage, peroxides and free radicals that cause damage to a cell.

Davies, an expert in the role of oxidation and Alzheimer's, says treatments aren't promising.

"Unless somebody comes up with something for Alzheimer's then we're going to need an awful lot of care facilities because people are just not able to cope in their own homes all the way through the disease," said Davies.

Health care dollars will invariable go to these new facilities for chronic care where a patient can sometimes spend years amid expensive care and equipment.

"It's not their fault, but we need to do something about coping with that," said Davies.

The private sector is one solution.

"The private sector has managed to help," said Phoebe Liebig, associate professor of Gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. Liebig cites private services, run by businesses or religious groups, which include care facilities and programs for senior citizens.

But not everyone has saved for retirement. Some who have paid into pensions have also lost funds with the recent market downturn.

Other experts say current programs, like Social Security and Medicare, will have to play a big part in the solution even though they may need some reform.

"Yes, there will be shortfalls," said Villa, "but we can do things to change this."

More: Can City Services Keep Up With Increased Poverty Levels?

Reut R. Cohen is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.

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