Baby boomers can hardly believe it themselves. In 11 short years - by 2020 - they will hold that unthinkable collective title of "the older generation."
Just as that milestone looms large, so do statistical realities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 almost 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over 65; over 12 million people will be over 85; more than 500,000 Americans will be over 100 - the fastest growing age group of all!
A projection on Southern Illinois University School of Medicine's Web site proclaims "older adults will utilize over one-half of the nation's healthcare services."
How fast can you say "geriatrics"? The field is exploding by necessity. And providers are realizing the best way to tame projected healthcare needs is by taking preventive, proactive measures - now.
One area rife with possibility is brain fitness.
Yet baby boomers live in fear of Alzheimer's disease and its accompanying dementia, rating it second only to cancer as their most dreaded medical diagnosis.
There is good news: there's plenty that can be done to prevent cognitive loss by keeping the brain enriched. Clearly, nurses need to be on the cutting edge of awareness to help aging patients and families stay on the healthy aging highway.
Paul Nussbaum, PhD, associate adjunct professor, department of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania has been lecturing across the country in an effort to educate healthcare providers, senior specialists and John Q. Public of the necessity for brain fitness.
"Historically the brain has not been the epicenter of our health. But guess what? It is the epicenter," Nussbaum told ADVANCE.
"Going back to the Egyptians, humans thought the heart was the universe. We still say things like 'I love you with all my heart." We give the heart meaning it doesn't deserve. It's a pump.
"Emotions, feelings, intellect, memory? That's the brain."
Nussbaum pointed to 1998 as a turning point in brain knowledge. "That's when science discovered the brain can actually generate new brain cells," said Nussbaum. "The so-called 'critical period of brain development' was flushed down the toilet. [What's] the real critical period of brain development? It's called 'life.'"
Offering hope to boomers, Nussbaum added, "Chronological age is all made up. The brain doesn't know how old it is and it doesn't care. It's irrelevant."
What it does care about, he noted, is being in an "environment" in which it is stimulated, shaped, reinforced. "The brain is dynamic, constantly reorganizing; it needs environmental input that's health-promoting."
A Fitness Club for the Brain
Peggy Bargmann, BSN, RN, specialized in gerontology and worked with Alzheimer's patients for 20 years, before opening her consulting business.
She's also the medical fortitude behind the Brain Fitness Club, housed at First United Methodist Church, Winter Park, FL, offering 8 hours per week of brain stimulation. Club members with varying degrees of memory loss are referred to Bargmann by physicians.
"If there is even a helpful hypothesis out there, we look at it," said Bargmann of the club's underlying philosophy.
"For example, some research says exercise stimulates brain health; so we go with that. We wear pedometers and have a goal of a certain number of steps per semester. We can't cure people, can't even promise improvement for sure. What we promote is brain health. If something could help, it's worth a shot."
Cognitive exercise is offered at the club as well, via games and various mental exercises. Ever read an article upside down? Members of the Brain Fitness Club have. It's just one of many brain-stimulating tasks they've tackled.
The club also works closely with the department of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Central Florida, Orlando. Graduate students provide 30 minutes of therapy each week for club members. In addition, the students assess the members' cognitive strengths and weaknesses and design stimulation workbooks for them to use at home on days when the club is not in session.