Chances are, those of us who are 60 or older remember the immortal words of one Roger Daltry. In one of the anthems of the 1960s, the Who’s “My Generation,” Daltry stammered, “I hope I die before I get old.”
Sounded cool and brash at the time. But the Who’s front man would take those words back today. So would the rest of the baby boomers who partied like there was no tomorrow. Now, they’re in their 60s, and getting old. Even the younger members of the baby boom generation are in their 50s now, and guess what?
They’re getting healthier.
So says Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention. Pinette released statistics recently that show Maine heart disease death rates have declined among people age 35-64, from 110.4 per 100,000 in population in 1993 to 70.6 in 2009.
Good thing, not only for people those ages, but for all those who depend on them.
“Baby boomers are doing OK right now,” Pinette said. “Thank goodness they are, because they are taking care of their kids and they’re taking care of their parents.”
Pinette hastened to note that, while boomers are taking better care of their hearts, more of them are dying from lung cancer – a particular problem in Maine. But as the Center for Disease Control focuses on National Heart Month in February, Pinette points to the important factors in preventing heart disease:
• Controlling high blood pressure and weight
• Avoiding foods high in salt/sodium
• Exercising regularly
• Don’t smoke or drink alcohol regularly
“The one big problem we have in Maine is obesity,” Pinette said. “If you’re overweight, and you can lose 5 percent of your BMI (body mass index), it’s a big help.”
Mylan Cohen, a cardiologist with Maine Health Cardiology, Maine Medical Partners, said that Maine, being a Northeast state, presents problems for people in terms of obesity and blood pressure.
“We’re generally less active in the winter,” Cohen said. “You need more sidewalks. You need more bike paths.”
Cohen mentioned smoking, weight and blood pressure as particular problems for people in their 50s and 60s.
“Americans – and Mainers in particular – are overweight,” he said. “It’s attributable to a culture of excess. We simply eat too much and don’t move around enough. Increased weight is linked directly to increased blood pressure, cholesterol, and high blood sugar. Lose weight, and you can reduce all three.”
Cohen concedes that, as a cardiologist, he sees baby boomers who already have heart problems. But weight – and high blood pressure – are common issues, he said.
“A lot of people in their 50s and 60s are overweight,” Cohen said. “The trick is to stay active.”
Regarding blood pressure, Cohen referred to statistics released in Chicago in December by the Eighth Joint National Committee that adjusted recommendatons on when people should be taking blood pressure medication. In patients 60 years or older, the committee says, medication should be prescribed for blood pressure less than 150. The old standard for the top number, Cohen said, was 140.
“They’re just concentrating on the top number now,” he said. “They raised the bar. We’re concentrating more on prevention.”
Pinette cited smoking as another concern, not only for lung cancer, but also for heart ailments.
“It’s one of the most aggravating factors,” she said. “Nicotine blocks the oxygen to the lungs.”
Pinette provided recent figures showing that 65 percent of Maine adults are either overweight or obese, and 22.8 percent of adult Mainers are smokers.
But on the plus side of things, the national average of fatalities due to heart disease is 180.1 per 100,000. Maine is well below that at 156.2. Those statistics dovetail well with the figures for the 35-64 age group.
Cohen concurs with Pinette’s concerns.
“If there is one thing people can do to improve their health,” Cohen said, “it’s to stop smoking.”
What are we doing right in Maine?
“One of the benefits in our state is a well-developed cardiac care and intervention system,” Pinette said. “It’s intervention. Awareness is a factor.”
If awareness and intervention are helping people avoid heart-related deaths, it would follow that prevention is important. People help themselves by taking aspirin and statins, and taking their blood pressure medication, she said.
“We’re doing well,” Pinette said, “but weight tends to go on in later years. And people who are dependent on alcohol or drugs have more problems.”
Overall, heart disease death rates have decreased both in the U.S. overall and in Maine, the CDC says. Maine has consistently lower heart disease death rates compared to U.S. rates.
The “take-away message” is this, Pinette said: “Prevention measures, primary care physicians and rapid interventions in a well-developed cardiac system throughout the state have helped to save lives.”