Americans are living longer than ever before. As a result of greatly improved sanitation, hygiene, nutrition, life-saving drugs and medical care, lifespan has increased significantly.
At the time of the American Revolution in 1776, the average life expectancy in the United States was a paltry 30 years of age. Back then, you had to make your mark early, because your stay in this world was likely to be brief.
Today, the average American life expectancy is close to 80, and the fastest growing segment of the American population is adults 85 years or older.
Whereas age 65 was once considered old, now it's just upper middle age.
The population group that will live longer than any other thus far is the baby boomer generation, which accounts for a whopping 76 million adults and represents 42 percent of all Americans over 21. This generation initiated a gerontological explosion in the year 2011, as its earliest members turned 65.
While there may not be an actual fountain of youth, we are continually re-defining old age and pushing the limits of lifespan further and further.
And now the bad news
Increased lifespan may sound like a dream come true. But it may be a nightmare in progress. Unless we assume far greater responsibility for our health, current increases in longevity spell decrepitude and financial disaster for millions of Americans.
If rates of disease and disability continue at their current levels, America will become a nation of sick, senile, disenfranchised, impoverished seniors, with too few resources to care for them and astronomical medical costs that will cripple our economy.
Consider the following: The average American over the age of 65 suffers multiple chronic conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, hearing and vision disorders. This group accounts for one third of all health care spending, one third of prescription drug use and 40 percent of doctor visits.
Over 25 percent of those 85 or older require institutional care. Unless the economic structure of the nation is substantially re-vamped, Medicare will run out of funds by 2029. Suddenly, the idea of living 100 years or more loses some of its luster.
Sobering health figures
The following figures underscore the serious health challenges we face as we age.
-According to the American Heart Association, approximately 1 million American adults die annually of heart attack.
-An estimated half million Americans suffer strokes annually, thirty percent of which result in death.
-According to the American Cancer Society, 1 out of every 3 Americans (more than 86 million Americans alive today, will get cancer.
-1.35 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year.
-538,000 Americans will die of cancer this year.
-Arthritis is the number one cause of disability in the US.
-According to the Arthritis Foundation, 40 million Americans have arthritis.
-According to the Centers for Disease Control, by 2020, 59.4 million Americans will have arthritis.
-According to the American Diabetes Association, 16 million Americans have diabetes.
-800,000 diabetics are insulin - dependent.
-400,000 people die each year from diabetes.
-Each year 625,000 new cases of diabetes are diagnosed.
-According to national health statistics, 62 percent of Americans are overweight. Many are obese, exceeding recommended weights by 25 percent or more.
-According to the Alzheimer's Foundation, 4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease.
-14 million Americans are expected to have Alzheimer's by the year 2050.
-One in 10 persons over 65 develops Alzheimer's.
-50 percent of those over 85 develop Alzheimer's.
Faced with the magnitude of such a great aging explosion, we can't expect our medical system to catch us as we fall.
Health care in the U.S. is currently in crisis, and many people have lost confidence in medicine. Medical services are expensive, and insurance is becoming prohibitively costly.
The great majority of doctors are specialists in disease care, not in prevention and are primarily familiar with drugs and surgery. Thus preventing disease and designing programs to keep people fit for life are largely enterprises outside of the medical realm.
Health is not a medical condition, and physicians are not the gatekeepers of fitness and wellness. We are our own gatekeepers.
Large numbers of people are venturing outside of the conventional medical establishment in a quest to manage and promote their own health, fitness and well being. They are becoming much more active in finding ways to deal with common ailments on their own.
This signifies a profound shift toward self directed health care. In response to this shift, medical educators are beginning to grapple with wellness and prevention as areas of medical specialty. This is critically important, for if physicians are going to play any significant future role in keeping our aging population healthy, they must be become astute specialists in prevention, fitness and wellness.
Increasing fitness span
The shape of the future is ours to determine. Will we live to be energetic, healthy centenarians, or will we spend the last decades of our lives sick, incapacitated and institutionalized? The issue is one of fitness span.
Lifespan is how long you live. Fitness span is how long you stay fit and healthy. Getting fit is a necessity, not an option.
Health and fitness begin to decline at around age 40 when age-related degenerative conditions begin to take their toll. Our task is to extend fitness span to match life span, so we stay fit and healthy until we die.
In the quest for health, millions of Americans are turning to alternative and complementary therapies and products, including supplements, herbs, and homeopathic medicines.
News media are now promoting the safety, efficacy and overall wellness benefits of these programs and products, and scientists continue to affirm that these approaches impart real health benefits that treat ailments ranging from indigestion to allergies.
True fitness is a state of wellness, abundant energy and a feeling of being whole and intact. It is a dynamic, vital condition which must be managed daily. Since this is an inalterable fact of life, you might as well dive into this endeavor wholeheartedly, with a galvanized and enthusiastic determination to stay fit for as long as you live.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com