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Aging Gracefully

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    It’s been called the “graying” of America: More and more of us are living into old age. The trend is so pronounced that one out of every ten people in the U.S. could be 90 years of age or older by the year 2030. That, says Sara J. Czaja, scientific director of the Miller School of Medicine’s Center on Aging, makes it more important than ever to distinguish the myths about aging from the realities—and to identify medical interventions and lifestyle strategies that will help the elderly maintain good health and quality of life in their later years.

    More than 50 community members made their way to the Whitten Learning Center on UM’s Coral Gables campus last Thursday to hear Czaja’s expert and up-to-the-minute perspective on this topic as part of the Collegetown UM Doctors Lecture Series. Czaja, the Leonard M. Miller Professor in the Miller School’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Industrial Engineering in the College of Engineering. An internationally recognized expert in aging and care giving and intervention research, she is known for developing unique strategies and technologies to improve the quality of life for older adults.

    Czaja began her talk by debunking common myths about aging—among them the notions that elderly people are ill, depressed, and technophobic, and that we have no control over how we age. She then discussed the challenges that aging clearly brings. Older people are at greater risk for health issues such as heart disease and diabetes; may have vision, hearing, cognitive, or mobility impairments; and often require modifications in living environments and transportation arrangements.

    Czaja emphasized, however, that older people can continue to learn and experience positive changes as well as utilize “compensatory strategies” to adjust to changing abilities. Exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, mentally challenging activities, and social involvement can all be helpful in healthful aging. Steps must also be taken, she said, to prevent isolation, which can pose profound physical and emotional risks to elderly well-being.

    Czaja also highlighted ongoing research in Alzheimer’s disease, including the identification of biomarkers that are leading to earlier and more accurate diagnosis of the condition, and pharmacologic interventions that, while they cannot change the disease process, can sometimes slow the development of symptoms.

    “There is no consensus on  how to measure or define healthy, optimal, successful aging,” Czaja noted, adding that “total absence of illness or disability is not required for successful aging. Life is dynamic, and we have to learn strategies to adapt to change.”

    For more information on the work of the Center on Aging, where 22 Miller School faculty members are involved in research, education, clinical programs that include a Memory Disorders Center and community services for the elderly, their families, and caregivers, click here.


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