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April 2, 2001
Senior Strength in Numbers
Concerns of the aging are becoming a national priority
By Louisa C. Brinsmade

Worried that the future of this country belongs to the massive Spice Girl youth hoard? Don't. There's strength in numbers. As the fastest-growing demographic in the world, seniors are poised to become an economic and political force in the new millennium. One-third of people in industrialized countries will be over 60 years of age by 2030, according to the United Nations. In the United States, 77 million baby boomers -- who already make up a third of the nation -- will begin turning 60 in 2006. The best news? You vote. They don't.

New ideas on issues important to seniors are being advanced by the medical community as well as by the U.S. Congress. There are several developments you should know about, like the new antioxidant food chart and food pyramid just for seniors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as studies on what could be a vaccine for Alzheimer's disease . And just in time for election year, legislators are going to the heart of the senior population with the controversial patient's bill of rights issue (while leaving Medicare reform in the dust).

To help you get the most out of a powerful new era for seniors, we will regularly inform you about important news from the medical community on new treatments and developing studies, as well as about legislative issues that affect older persons. There is no better time to get informed -- the coming election year and the new millennium signify an opportunity to take control of your future. As the dominant age demographic in the United States, and soon, in the world, seniors and their demands can no longer be ignored.

Dietary Detox: High Scores for Antioxidants in Food

It's something those hippies at the health food store have been telling you for years -- antioxidants are the key to keeping those bad "oxygen free radicals" away. Oxygen free radicals are atoms that are missing an electron -- this electron can attach itself to other atoms and cause a chemical reaction. In the human body, these radicals from food attach themselves to your cells and sometimes become cancerous or cause other health problems. Antioxidant supplements, although not approved by the FDA, have been sold over the counter for years to a public eager to take control of its own healthcare. Now the USDA is embracing the antioxidant revolution following positive results from studies at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, at Tufts University, in Boston. Eating plenty of foods that score high in an antioxidant analysis called Oxygen Radical Absorbence Capacity (ORAC) may help slow the processes associated with aging in both body and mind. Naturally, foods with the highest ORAC scores are fruits and vegetables such as spinach and blueberries, not pizza or beer.

"If further research supports these early findings, millions of aging people may be able to guard against diseases or dementia simply by adding high-ORAC foods to their diets," states the USDA report on the ORAC studies. The following graph shows the foods with the highest ORAC rating from the USDA. ORAC rating or no, adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet is always a good idea.

The USDA takes another Peak at Nutrition

Food Pyramid Image

Spinach and blueberries, and eight glasses of water a day.... The USDA and the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging have new diet rules just for seniors. Nutritional researchers have developed a special food pyramid for people over 70 to address their dietary and supplemental needs. The new pyramid retains the recommendation that the bulk of an older person's diet be built on grains, vegetables, and fruits, topped by dairy products and protein sources, and finally -- in smaller portions -- fats, oils, and sweets.

What makes this pyramid different is its supplemental peak and its watery foundation. Supplemental calcium and vitamins D and B-12 are recommended for bone strength and energy. Also, at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water should be consumed daily, because the sensation of thirst tends to decrease in the elderly.

Medical breakthrough in Alzheimer's disease prevention

A vaccine to treat Alzheimer's disease might be on its way. Researchers at the Elan Corp., an Irish pharmaceutical company, developed an experimental vaccine that reduces or prevents the buildup of plaque in the brains of mice. The plaque comes from a protein called amyloid, which is characteristic of Alzheimer's. The "AN-1792" vaccine seems to prevent buildup of this protein in the lab mice. Some mice that already had the plaque were injected with the vaccine; in those mice, plaque buildup stopped, meaning that some protection from further damage to the brain is possible. In mice, that is. The company hopes to win U.S. approval to test the vaccine on humans later this year, with plans to have a human vaccine ready for approval by the FDA in five years.

Medicare reform

Medicare reform, although a popular issue among seniors, still lacks the bipartisan support it needs to reach fruition. President Bill Clinton's proposal to overhaul the Medicare system was "long overdue," according to many advocates for seniors, but it looks like a long wait is still in store. The President vetoed the Republican-backed budget bill for the 1999-2000 year; the bill did not include any of the reforms he suggested earlier this summer. The President's reform plan would have given $7.5 billion over the next three years to Medicare providers. That increase seems small, considering that the program is already suffering from a 1997 bill that will cut $39 billion over the next 10 years. Clinton's summer proposal to charge Medicare recipients a sliding-scale fee to cover prescriptions was thrown off the table by Republicans in their 1999-2000 federal budget bill. Republicans argued that most seniors already have prescription coverage. A Medicare-based study reveals, however, that 75% of the elderly do not actually have that kind of coverage. Republicans, who were intent on using this year's $792 billion in surpluses for tax cuts, said the President's plan was both "too generous" and too expensive. Although the fiscal year began October 1, as of the second week of October, Congress was still struggling to pass all 13 of the tax bills that make up the federal budget.

Patients' Bill of Rights

New legislation forming a comprehensive "patients' bill of rights" was passed October 7, granting HMO consumers better access to necessary care, and broad rights to sue if proper access is denied. The Democrat-backed bill enjoyed solid support in the House, with 68 Republicans clinching a 275-151 victory. The bill will now proceed to a congressional conference committee, where members of the House and Senate will try to reconcile this bill with a more conservative Senate version passed this summer that does not include the right to sue. Sponsored by Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan) and Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Georgia), the "patients' bill of rights" legislation defeated other House GOP-backed bills that either did not include the right to sue or severely restricted liability.

If the Norwood-Dingell bill survives the conference committee intact, it would:

  • Make it easier to go to an emergency room or see a specialist
  • Give patients the chance to take their complaints to independent panels
  • Lift a federal ban and allow patients who are still not satisfied the right to sue an HMO in state court

Although the Norwood-Dingell bill has bipartisan backing, it also has what Democrats are calling a "poison pill" attached by House Republicans that will follow it into committee. The GOP majority attached a $40-50 million tax break amendment that addresses the separate issue of uninsured Americans. Republicans stated that they wanted to take care of the estimated 44 million Americans who are uninsured first, before dealing with lawsuits against the managed-care industry. Democrats took issue with this amendment, saying it was an attempt to distract Congress from the issue of HMO regulation and provoke President Clinton to veto the entire bill. The day of the vote, however, Clinton urged Democrats to vote for the bill anyway, expressing hope that changes will be made in conference committee.

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