Uncharted Territory

Michelle Odden
Michelle Odden

As adults live longer, the challenge of maintaining health through their senior years increases. Differences among individuals become more pronounced and older people may not respond to treatments as they would have when they were younger.

The field of geriatric health care is moving forward rapidly, says Michelle Odden, an epidemiologist at Oregon State University. For both providers and patients, the challenge is keeping up with the complexity and uniqueness of individuals as human lifespan extends beyond its historical parameters.

“The honest truth is that there are a lot of unknowns about how to promote health in very old age, but it is an exciting time,” says Odden, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

“The main messages for my research are: You shouldn’t treat an 80-year-old like you would treat a 50-year-old, and perhaps more challenging, you shouldn’t treat 80-year-old Sophie like you would treat 80-year-old Mary. One size does not fit all when it comes to prevention in old age.”

Older adults have had a lifetime to accumulate health risks, whether from smoking, lack of exercise or other habits, she says. And as people near the end of life, personal preferences become more significant. For example, what is more important to the individual? Maintaining cognitive function? Increasing life span? Avoiding a heart attack?

“These preferences along with a better understanding of the unique physiologic changes that accompany the aging process are needed to guide treatment and prevention decision-making in old age,” Odden adds.

The key to attaining healthy golden years, Odden says, is pretty straightforward, but it starts much earlier than retirement. “As much as we would love a magic pill, the best medicine for longevity is maintenance of a healthy lifestyle.”