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Healthy Aging Matters—at Any Age

My grandmother, Dorothy Main, lived to age 95, and she was on the move for nearly all of that time. In her Hillsboro retirement community, a bus was always leaving to take residents to activities around town. More often than not, my grandmother was on it.

Lectures. Concerts. Fishing trips and restaurants. Even a visit to a llama farm. Despite her painful arthritis, my grandmother stayed game for anything.

She had already lost her husband, my grandfather. Every week, it seemed, she lost another close friend. But instead of withdrawing, she sought out connections to other people and places. I believe this social connectedness is what kept her alive, and relatively healthy, for so long. Research backs me up, connecting a larger social network to a lower risk of premature death.

Karen and her grandmother Dorothy take in a baseball game with Bullwinkle

As she aged, Dorothy never became invisible. That’s a major achievement, given that so many of the places we live, work and play are designed as if older people and their needs don’t exist.

This is a shame—for older people and for all of us. When older adults encounter barriers to engaging in our communities, we all miss out. We all know older people whose skills, experience and wisdom have improved—and continue to enrich—our neighborhoods and schools; our workplaces and economy; our government and politics. By failing to support and enable the many contributions that older adults make, we do more than diminish them. We deprive our communities of tremendous resources.

Too many people in Oregon don’t grow old like my grandmother Dorothy—reasonably healthy, happy and engaged with the world around them. It shouldn’t be so hard to do. Yet it takes tremendous physical, mental, emotional and financial resources to overcome the barriers to healthy aging present in our society.

The most obvious barriers are built into the design of our homes, cities and towns. It’s difficult to get out of your apartment or house and participate in the community when you can no longer drive. It’s no wonder that among adults age 65 and over, one in six reports feeling isolated, either socially or geographically.

It’s even tougher to stay socially connected, or meet basic needs like getting to a doctor’s appointment or grocery store, in rural areas, where public transit and other support services may be scarce or nonexistent. Even a stroll to the corner store is treacherous, if the sidewalks are uneven and your walker gets caught in the cracks.

There are less tangible obstacles to healthy aging, too, that can arise as early as childhood. A lack of access to healthy food, physical activity, immunizations, clean air or safe water (or a combination of these) during early or midlife can influence whether or not a person can grow older in a healthy manner, free of chronic diseases like diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. In Oregon, 79% of adults 65 years or older are living with at least one chronic disease, and 44% are living with two or more.

Given these structural and systemic challenges to healthy aging, it must feel easier for many older adults to simply stay home, disconnect and disappear.

By 2050, the number of Oregon adults over 65 will more than double. We can start now to do better for our grandparents, our parents and ourselves. Like any barriers in our society, we can remove the obstacles to healthy aging that people in Oregon face—if we commit as a community to addressing them.

The proof is in places like Bridge Meadows in North Portland. This multigenerational housing development is reducing social isolation among older adults and providing affordable housing, while improving the lives of younger families raising foster children. It’s an inspiring example of how safer, healthier, age-friendly communities help people in Oregon of all ages. Check out the video above, and see for yourself.

The websites for AARP Oregon and Age-Friendly Portland and Multnomah County feature resources and entry points for making our communities more age-friendly. For people engaged in health promotion and disease prevention, Oregon State University Extension Service provides a range of Healthy Aging resources, and Portland State University’s Institute on Aging offers tools specifically for working with older adults with behavioral health needs.

I hope you’ll check out these resources and consider how you might get involved. Everyone benefits when Oregon supports more multigenerational communities like Bridge Meadows. Whether you’re 25, 45 or 65, we all have a stake in creating similar places and expanding the opportunities for people in Oregon to age in a healthy way.

After all, we’re all getting older—every day.

Curious about a chronic disease topic youd like to see covered here? Interested in writing a guest blog? Keep the conversation going by leaving a comment below. 

Let’s Talk the Walk

“Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.”
– Kahlil Gibran

For individuals, the health benefits are clear: Walking, or rolling for wheelchair users, raises the heart rate, elevates energy levels and improves mood. And some studies show that regular moderate exercise––like a brisk walk––is one of the best ways to prevent chronic health conditions. That’s good news for the more than half (53%) of Oregon adults who report walking for exercise.1

Community Benefits

When our communities are walkable, the benefits accrue to more than just the individual walker. Creating walkable places is among the most promising strategies for addressing obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases that take a physical and financial toll on our state. No matter where you live in Oregon, living in a walkable community is something we should all expect and demand.

Prineville, Oregon stands out as a walkable place, said resident Bob Orlando. Before Bob relocated to Prineville, he needed to drive 30 minutes just to take a good long walk. Now, Prineville’s paved paths and groomed trails give him easy access to the physical activity he enjoys. What’s more, residents seem more connected to each other and to what’s going on in their community, Bob said, compared to other places he’s lived.

In Prineville, “if you want to get outside and do something, the opportunity is there,” he said.

Bob Orlando explains how his community of Prineville, Ore. makes it easier to take a walk.

Opportunities

Some Oregon communities share Prineville’s walkability, but others do not. Most of us live in places that were designed decades ago with cars in mind, not walking.

While city planning and transportation design are different today, many communities are still without walkable places. Depending on where you live or your income level, barriers exist that may keep you from getting enough regular physical activity—even when that activity is as seemingly simple as a walk.

For example, when the “WALK” signal at an intersection doesn’t last long enough, an older person who moves slowly doesn’t have time to safely make it to the other side. When sidewalks are uneven, broken or nonexistent, a short walk to the bus stop can be treacherous for a parent pushing a stroller or an older person using a walker.

For the health and vitality of all Oregon communities, it’s important to make the places where we live, work, learn and play more safe and enjoyable for walking.

What Makes a Community Walkable

Several factors help accomplish this goal, according to national walkability expert Mark Fenton.

These include having destinations that are useful and interesting, such as bus stops, schools, markets, community centers and libraries. It’s also helpful if there is a good network of sidewalks, trails and crossings to make travel efficient. A walker can quickly hit a dead end without these connections.

Other elements that make it easier and more likely for people to walk are inviting settings, such as streets with pleasing storefronts right up to the sidewalk, shade trees and other features. People are more likely to walk where they can move around safely and enjoy their surroundings.

Lastly, the areas must be safe for people of all ages and ability. This could mean signalized intersections that allow more time to cross, or streetlights that illuminate evening walks through a neighborhood park.

What if you’re a senior and you don’t drive? Just walking to the bus stop can be difficult and scary.

When all of these factors are present in a community, they fuel community vitality. When neighborhoods are walkable, they attract people. People walk to work or school, to run errands or just to exercise. With more feet on the street, we talk more and connect more often with neighbors. This makes neighborhoods more economically and socially vibrant, improves community health, and makes life better for everyone––mentally and physically.

What You Can Do

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to make your community more walkable, no matter where you live. Most importantly, you can ask for—and if necessary, demand—more safe places to walk. Walkable neighborhoods are not a privilege reserved for certain Oregonians. All of us should have the opportunity to walk safely and comfortably in our own communities.

Here are a few specific ways to get involved:

  • Find out what’s happening in your community

Many communities in Oregon have begun to make their neighborhoods more walkable and to encourage people to walk more. In many cases, community groups are working with planners to put in place strategies that encourage walking. Contact your city or county transportation planning department to find out if any efforts are underway to improve walkability.

These are a few of the Oregon communities working to improve walkability:

  • Participate in community land use and transportation planning projects

Every county and incorporated town and city in Oregon has a comprehensive plan that includes a transportation system plan. Comprehensive plans are 20-year plans that guide how communities grow and develop.

While the entire comprehensive plan is updated only once every 20 years, different components of the plan are updated more frequently. The transportation system plan must be updated every five years in a way that engages citizens, typically in the form of citizen advisory committees and public meetings. These forums are great opportunities to get involved and speak up for plans that support health by prioritizing walkability.

Local planning agencies also occasionally develop neighborhood-scale community plans that address land use and transportation issues. These also must include opportunities for people to get involved. Most planning departments have websites with information about current and upcoming projects. You can also contact your local planners directly to learn about what’s going on and how to get involved.

To find out more about how to work with local planners and community groups to promote walkable communities, start by visiting the “Active, Healthy Transportation” section of the Oregon Transportation and Growth Management Program website.

  • Spark conversations with decision makers

For example, if you are a parent, grandparent or caretaker of school-aged children, start a conversation with the principal or other administrators. Ask them for information about how your community makes it easier for your child to walk or bike to school.

  • Explore walking and walkability resources

Share what you learn and what you’re hoping to improve in your community with your family, friends and neighbors, and with other Oregonians at Place Matters OregonOther resources to explore: 

No matter how you choose to get involved, your actions can make a difference. If you care about the physical, mental, social and economic health of your community—and all Oregon communities—walking is a simple but effective way that we can all move toward progress.

 

1 Oregon Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. 2011. Unpublished data

Sugary drinks are sweet, cheap and easy to get

Nearly HALF (47%) of the added sugar in the average American diet is consumed in the form of sodas and other sugary drinks. Sugary drinks include regular sodas (non-diet), fruit juices, sports drinks, flavored milk, energy drinks, and sweetened coffees and teas.

I used to think that consumption of soda or sugary drinks was not a public health threat because I thought they were an occasional treat—not a staple of the American diet. When I was growing up, I had two sodas a year. Soda was a special treat I got on school field trips. Now, they’re a regular part of the American diet. In Oregon, more than 177 million gallons of sugary drinks are consumed each year. That amounts to approximately one gallon per week for every single person in the state.

Consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks contributes to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and poor oral health. These chronic diseases have a crushing impact on our healthcare system and greatly affect quality of life. Each year, Oregon spends about $1.6 billion in medical expenses for obesity-related chronic conditions and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Drinking this “liquid candy” provides excessive calories. People do not feel as full as if they had eaten the same calories from food, and they do not compensate by eating less. The average 20-ounce serving of soda contains about 240 calories and over 16 teaspoons of sugar, with little to no other nutrient value.  That’s more sugar than the average adult should consume in an entire day!

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It wasn’t always that way. The availability of sugary drinks is triple what it was 60 years ago. Beverage makers sell products in grocery stores and convenience stores, gas stations, drug stores, business supply stores, sports stadiums, concession stands, movie theaters, airports, casinos, restaurants, museums, hospitals, prisons and everywhere they can install a vending machine. Anytime you desire a soda, you can get one—often at less expense than a bottle of water. The incessant prevalence of soda and soda marketing (consider how often you see vending machines) also drives demand. Even if you haven’t been thinking about wanting a soda, your exposure to the vending machine and other marketing materials will suddenly create that desire for you. And that’s true across the state, from a small Eastern Oregon town to the Portland metro area.

The size of America’s sodas has also ballooned. When my parents were growing up, a standard soft drink bottle was 6.5 ounces.  Today, sodas are available in much larger sizes. The average single serving soda size is 42 oz.

huge-soda-sizes2

Source: Fact Sheet: Sugary Drink Supersizing and the Obesity Epidemic. 

When I think about the impact of sugary drinks, I am reminded of the similarities to tobacco. Just like tobacco, sugary beverages are sweet, cheap and easy to get. Sugary drinks and tobacco are not necessary for health or well-being, but are widely consumed. Additionally, similar to tobacco, sugary drinks are marketed extensively to children, adolescents and low-income groups most at risk of becoming overweight and dealing with the consequences. Soda consumption, and tobacco use, is highest among such groups.

Marketing data demonstrates the clear targeting of specific communities. African American children and teens see more than twice as many ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks on TV compared with white children and teens.  According to a study from the Rudd Center for  Food Policy and Obesity, advertising for sugary drinks on Spanish-language TV increased by 44% from 2010 to 2013.

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A comprehensive review by the Institute of Medicine concluded that food marketing affects children’s food preferences, purchase requests, diets and health. Low-income children of all racial backgrounds are twice as likely to drink one liter (34 oz.) of sugary beverages per day, compared to other kids.

So what can we, as Oregonians, do to counter the threat sugary drinks pose to health? As a community, we can support efforts to reduce the affordability, acceptability, appeal and availability of sugary drinks.  The Oregon State Health Improvement Plan presents evidence-based strategies to reduce the consumption of sugary beverages, including:

  • Increasing the price of sugary drinks
  • Increasing the number of private and public businesses, and other places, that adopt standards for healthy beverages

For more facts about the impact of sugary drinks on Oregonians, click here.

Curious about a chronic disease topic you’d like to see covered here? Interested in writing a guest blog? Keep the conversation going by leaving a comment below. 

 

 

Candy-flavored Tobacco is a Trick, not a Treat—and It’s for Sale in Your Neighborhood

Every day, tobacco companies market their addictive products to Oregon kids and teens by making them look, smell and taste like candy. Tobacco companies are so adept at this targeted trickery, many adults don’t even notice it.

For all of us who care about Oregon and the ways that our communities help, or harm, our health, it’s time to take a closer look. Candy-Jars-IMG_2081_Cropped

  • A wide array of tobacco products, easily accessible to kids and teens today, are packaged and flavored to be nearly indistinguishable from candy.
  • These flavored little cigars, cigarillos and hookah tobacco are dressed up in shiny, brightly-colored wrappers and tins.
  • They are sweetened with the same chemicals used to flavor popular kids’ products like LifeSavers™ and Kool-Aid™.
  • Despite fruity and kid-friendly names like grape, chocolate, “vivid vanilla” and “cherry crush,” these products contain nicotine and are as dangerous and addictive as cigarettes.

Tobacco companies say they add sweet and fruity flavors to tobacco because grownups like sweet stuff, too. Yet new numbers show that Oregon kids are far more likely than adults to use flavored tobacco.

In contrast, about 15 percent of adult tobacco users in Oregon use flavored tobacco products according to the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey. Among youth tobacco users, more than half (60%) of 8th graders and more than two-thirds (68%) of 11th graders used flavored tobacco, according to the 2015 Oregon Healthy Teens survey.

Clearly, tobacco companies’ targeted marketing to young people is working. Their tactics are on display in the gas stations, convenience stores and other retailers where most tobacco is sold in Oregon. Young people visit these stores often: More than half of 8th graders (58%) and 11th graders (57%) in Oregon shop in a convenience store at least once a week.

Over the past few years, public health workers and community members in every Oregon county coordinated visits to stores that sell tobacco and documented that nearly all of them—nine in ten—sell flavored tobacco products (when menthol cigarettes are included, that percentage climbs to 98 percent).

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Tobacco companies claim these flavored tobacco products, such as cotton candy flavored cigarillos, aren’t meant for kids, who can’t legally buy them. Yet the data clearly show that the majority of kids who use tobacco products are using flavored tobacco products. Because the candy and fruit flavors attract kids—and because they mask the natural harsh taste of tobacco—they make it easier for kids to experiment with tobacco, and easier for kids to become addicted.

In the case of menthol-flavored tobacco products, that minty flavor also has a soothing effect on the lungs that reduces the irritation and discomfort associated with smoking—similar to the way a mentholated cough drop soothes a sore, scratchy throat.

An Oregon retailer sells flavored little cigars next to candy.

An Oregon retailer sells flavored little cigars next to candy.

Fortunately, a growing number of Oregon kids won’t be fooled by the tobacco companies’ candy-flavored tactics. Students in Hood River High School’s Health Media Club and the Rebels of Portland’s Madison High School are educating their siblings and peers about how tobacco companies target young people, and about the dangers of tobacco. These teens set an empowering example for the rest of us for how to push back against tobacco companies’ influence and harmful effects on all Oregonians.

We can join them by noticing what’s for sale in our communities, talking with the young people in our lives about what we find, and sharing photos on social media to #whatsforsale.

We can connect with the Oregon Tobacco Prevention and Education Program (TPEP) coordinators in our individual counties and tribes to meet others who care about these issues and are working to make our communities healthier.

We can help young Oregonians avoid a lifetime of addiction and build a healthier state—by refusing to fall for the sweet tricks of the tobacco companies.

 

Curious about a chronic disease topic you’d like to see covered here? Interested in writing a guest blog? Keep the conversation going by leaving a comment below.