WASHINGTON – Maryland seniors are relatively healthy, but they need to eat their fruits and vegetables and engage in more physical activities, like seniors across the nation, according to a report to be released today.
The third annual report by the Merck Institute of Aging and Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used a range of health indicators identified by the U.S. Surgeon General to rate the overall health of people who are 65 and older. The indicators included oral health, obesity, mental distress, disability and preventive health, among others.
Maryland got passing scores in seven of nine graded areas, including oral health, smoking, flu vaccinations, pneumonia shots, mammogram testing, colon screenings and cholesterol checks. But Maryland, like most of the nation, failed when it came to physical activity and diet — two behaviors that experts said greatly affect health.
“It’s a shame because what we see is while older adults are getting the message about preventative services, we’re not translating the knowledge about healthy lifestyles into practice,” said Michele Patrick, communications director at the Merck Institute.
Advocates said that certain obstacles, such as lack of opportunities for exercise, prevent Maryland seniors from doing all they should to maintain their health.
“Our communities are not made for walking,” said Kelley Coates-Carter, spokeswoman for AARP Maryland. “It becomes a very, very scary proposition to walk in some of these communities.”
Health officials said that all indicators on the report are important, but that exercise is critical because of its impact on overall health.
“It is the biggest issue we probably focus on for older adults,” said Margaret Moore, public health adviser at the CDC.
“Physical activity is so important for reducing risk of chronic diseases,” she said. “It could also assist with feelings of depression and anxiety, issues of controlling your weight, (and) maintaining healthy bones, which helps with preventing falling, a huge issue with older adults.”
As for diet, Coates-Carter said that the high price of fruits and vegetables may make it difficult for many seniors to afford them on a fixed income.
“Fresh produce is very expensive, and if you have a limited income, one thing that would be the first to go would be fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Other groups have noticed seniors’ diet problem, and are working to solve the issue. Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, for example, is working to change its menus for the homebound after the Maryland Department of Aging issued new dietary standards for seniors.
“Our clients will be getting more fruits and vegetables than they do now,” said Toni Gianforti, spokeswoman for the organization.
Maryland’s performance varied widely in the other areas measured by the report. The state did relatively well in preventive health services for older men and obesity, ranking sixth and seventh in the nation, respectively. It also ranked 15th in occurrences of mental distress, and 17th in the number of physically unhealthy days.
But the state did poorly when it came to providing older women’s preventive health services, such as vaccines and cancer screenings, ranking 41st nationally — a statistic that baffled officials at the Maryland Department of Aging.
One area the officials were not surprised about, however, was Maryland’s poor performance in the diet and exercise categories.
“We’re focusing more and more on health issues — exercise and good nutrition — given the fact that we’re going to face a virtual explosion of the (senior) population,” said Maryland Department of Aging Secretary Jean Roesser. “It’s imperative that we eat right and exercise regularly.”
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