Apr 24, 2009

Budget-Busting Long-Term Care: Is It Inevitable?

The high cost of long-term health care will drag down the quality of life for nearly two-thirds of today's retirees, predicts the Center for Retirement Research at Babson College, as reported by David Pitt in the recent AP story "Retirees ill prepared for the long-term costs".

The article, like many of its type, then goes on to present a mix of horror stories about at-risk seniors unable to afford the care they'll inevitably need, along with scary statistics about how expensive it is to purchase long-term care insurance.

Too bad there isn't a word about the many low-cost steps people can take to greatly decrease the likelihood that they'll need long-term care in the first place. For example, many of us fear that diseases of the brain like Alzheimer's will sentence us to spend our last years in a nursing home. Actually, it is far more likely that we will be institutionalized because of broken bones -- most commonly, hip fractures. Most of these injuries are the result of bone loss or osteoporosis.

Twenty-five million Americans, 80% of them women, suffer from osteoporosis. This horribly debilitating disease results in well over a million annual skeletal fractures of which as many as a third are hip fractures. The good news is that osteoporosis -- and the height loss, pain and high risk of bone fracture it causes -- can largely be prevented. The keys are to get enough vitamin D and calcium daily and to engage in regular weight-bearing exercise.

Type 2 diabetes is a second huge and highly preventable condition that in all its unhappy manifestations, such as increased risk of heart attack and stroke, results in millions of people needing long-term care. And as you probably know, sedentary, obese people are at much higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in mid- or later-life than are adults who maintain a healthy weight, exercise daily, and eat sensibly.

Finally, as anyone who has ever spent time in a care facility knows, depression is yet another reason why older people can no longer function independently. And while depression can affect anyone, health professionals have known for years that people who exercise regularly and vigorously are less likely to be depressed than are those who are sedentary. At least part of the explanation seems to be that exercise, like Prozac and other anti-depressant drugs, releases the brain chemical serotonin, a natural mood elevator.

So think about it: If frequent exercise and a good diet can greatly reduce the need for long-term care by at least 50%, doesn't it make far more sense to head for the gym than it does to turn on the T.V. and listen to yet another news item about how you're likely to spend years in a poverty-level nursing home?

Still, you might be thinking, "What about buying long-term care insurance?" I'll discuss that one in my next post.