Computerized health-risk appraisals, often given to younger adults, can benefit the elderly as well, says Gerald C. Hyner, associate professor of health education. He and doctoral student James M. Larkin conducted appraisals on 165 persons age 55 or older to suggest to them that getting older doesn't have to mean losing one's health.
"Rather than just give our attention to the young, or those who can pay for it, we're focusing health promotion strategies on the elderly," Hyner says. "We want to see if we can help them live lives with fewer handicaps and limitations."
So far, Hyner is encouraged by the results. "We worried there might be a negative side to assessing the health of senior citizens," he says. "If they looked at their computer printouts and realized how unhealthy they were, they might just give up and not try. However, we saw no adverse effects. Our participants did learn how to better take care of themselves, and more than 90 percent of them admitted trying to change at least one behavior as a result of their appraisal and educational debriefing."
Study subjects filled out a health questionnaire, and they were given blood tests, had their blood pressure taken and their height and weight recorded. The results were tabulated by computer, and the researchers discussed the results with the participants and suggested possible healthy behavior changes. The researchers conducted six-month followup interviews with the participants, and they also will conduct 18-month checks to see how many of the subjects have continued their healthier ways.
Unlike health-risk appraisals given to most adults, those given to the elderly should provide different types of feedback, Hyner says. "Our participants knew they were at high risk -- they know their age. We didn't need to compare them to mortality tables. Rather we started focusing on morbidity, or the amount of time they are sick or injured. These people were most concerned about reducing morbidity or putting it off as long as they could."
Helen Bothel, 67, of West Lafayette, a study participant, says the information was motivating. "They were able to 'red-flag' possible areas for me to improve in, such as that I lose weight and exercise. My husband and I joined a health club, and our kids thought it was great!" she says.
Hyner says: "It wasn't that our recommendations to them were unique. We told them the same things we tell younger adults -- increase your physical activity, make diet changes and learn ways to deal with stress. However, we made some modifications, due to the elderly's unique situtation, suggesting to them the proper types of exercise for their age and ways to avoid falls and injuries."
Another participant, 72-year-old Russell McCormick of West Lafayette, made lifestyle changes that included eating less, exercising more and stopping smoking. "It's difficult to change after living a whole life of not worrying about what you eat or how often you exercise," he says. "But I feel better now, I have a better attitude and my circulation is better."
Bothel agrees that living better is the goal. "It's the quality of life, not the quantity of it, that counts," she says.
While helping senior citizens live better lives is the focus of Hyner's research project, the end result also could have a financial impact.
The cost of Medicare for the elderly is expected to mushroom as baby boomers age. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine predicted that people who turn 65 in the year 2020 will cost Medicare and estimated $210 billion before they die, almost double the 1990 costs.
Hyner says that while there is no proof that health promotion among the elderly saves health care dollars, it's worth studying because of the positive feedback he and others have received.
"Our participants seemed most interested in raising their levels of fitness, reducing excess body fat, improving their diets and managing stress," he says. "All of these factors we know contribute to better overall health."
Sources: Gerald Hyner, (765) 494-3151; home (765) 474-5835
Russell McCormick, (765) 463-2439
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; home (654) 474-3741, Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
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