The Assisted Living Phenomenon: A Secret Weapon Against Heart Disease?
February marks the 50th annual American Heart Month and much progress has been made since 1963. While heart-disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., the number of seniors afflicted with the condition decreased markedly during the last decade. Evidence suggests assisted living long-term care providers may have helped bring about this change.
The Rise of Assisted Living Communities
Each year heart disease takes more than half a million American lives, making it the leading cause of death in the nation according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The good news is that fewer seniors are dying from the disease. The CDC reports that between 2000 and 2010 the rate of seniors hospitalized because of heart disease has decreased almost 50%, which indicates that nationwide education and prevention efforts are paying dividends.
During the same period, the number of seniors at assisted living communities has grown dramatically, more than doubling according to current and historic numbers from AARP. As more than 4 million Americans live in assisted living communities and nursing homes, it’s clear that senior communities have played, and will continue to play, an important role in this battle. While definitive research linking improved heart-health to senior community residency has not been undertaken, there appears to be, at the very least, a correlation between seniors’ improved heart-health and the increasing use of assisted living services.
Heart disease is largely a “lifestyle” illness, meaning that the way we live affects our likelihood of developing the condition. Those who exercise frequently, control their blood pressure, eat a healthy diet, and don’t smoke are much less likely to develop heart disease than those who do the opposite. Because senior communities provide meals and fitness opportunities, and even control smoking policies, the key to senior’s heart health is largely in their hands. So it’s clear that policies and practices of long-term care providers could affect and improve heart-health.
Senior living providers understand their special role and take the responsibility seriously. Despite the challenges, such as the fact that a large portion of new residents already have a primary diagnosis of heart disease from decades of living a not-so-healthy lifestyle, long-term care providers strive to make heart health a priority because it’s never too late to make a positive lifestyle change.
Evidence shows that simply knowing how to live a heart-healthy lifestyle isn’t enough: The general population of the U.S. is widely aware of American Heart Association guidelines but hasn’t been able to implement them. On the other hand, the structure, support and encouragement that senior communities provide can help seniors to adhere to guidelines for heart-healthy living that they might not have been able to adhere to independently.
Proper diet, we know, is vital to a healthy heart. And because senior communities provide just about all the food that residents eat, they must be mindful to make food both delicious and healthy. As Chris Tolstoy, Food and Beverages Manager for the senior living provider LeisureCare, noted, “When you choose your community, you are basically choosing the restaurant that you will go to two to three times a day, every day.”
Tolstoy explained that heart-health is taken very seriously at LeisureCare and is a key consideration in their nutrition program, “We offer a minimum of five heart-healthy items, which are designated on the menu with a little heart.”
We also interviewed Geoff Davies, Vice President of Dining Services for the assisted living company Merrill Gardens. He outlined the measures that they take to insure seniors are offered a menu that’s both healthy and appetizing, “We make our own menus with input from the community chefs” and then send them to a “team of registered dieticians who review and validate nutrition.” Merrill Gardens has also put in place company-wide nutrition protocols, such as a no added salt policy, that promote cardiovascular health.
Community Fitness and Relaxation
A healthy diet is just part of the puzzle. Chris Tolstoy of LeisureCare explained that their communities coordinate meal planning with exercise, which is another important component of a heart healthy lifestyle. “With input from the on-staff personal trainers, we can help a resident pair a fitness program together with their meal program.”
The amount of exercise one gets is directly correlated to their probably of developing heart disease. The American Heart Association says, “There is a direct relation between physical inactivity and cardiovascular mortality, and physical inactivity is an independent risk factor for the development of coronary artery disease.”
A core goal of senior communities is to help keep their residents active. They provide both the facilities and the encouragement that seniors require to keep fit. Exercise programs at senior communities range from Sit-and-Be-Fit to water aerobics. And large communities have a big variety of activity choices so that residents can participate in activities they enjoy most. Whether it’s dancing or Tai Chi, communities strive to offer activities that residents genuinely enjoy. Communities also employ trainers that help seniors exercise and keep them motivated. Jason Childers, a senior vice president at LeisureCare says, enthusiastic staff is essential, “We are seeing more and more residents taking advantage of the gym. When the trainer is enthusiastic, it’s easy to get people excited about it.”
Stress and anxiety is also linked to heart problems, so senior communities work to make sure that residents are able to engage in enjoyable and comforting pastimes such as spending time with a pet (pet therapy) and sing-alongs. Activities director at Peaks at Santa Rita in Green Valley, Arizona says that residents at her community, “love karaoke.”
Smoking is a primary cause of heart disease. The American Heart Association explains bluntly, “Smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Smokers have a higher risk of developing many chronic disorders, including atherosclerosis — the buildup of fatty substances in the arteries — which can lead to coronary heart disease.”
Fortunately today’s assisted living communities are, as a rule, smoke free. Smoking is usually relegated to a designated outdoor area which assures that residents and staff who do not smoke aren’t exposed to hazardous, smoke-filled air. Communities’ nonsmoking policies not only protects nonsmokers, but also can help encourage current smokers to give up the habit. The inconvenience of only being allowed to smoke in designated areas often serves as motivation to break the habit, and residents who are actively trying to quit smoking can also receive additional support from medical professionals at the community.
We’re just beginning the fight against heart disease. As America’s leading cause of death, there is still an incredible amount of progress that needs to be made. But the decrease in heart disease that we witnessed during the last decade is a promising sign. Senior living providers’ systemic mindfulness of heart-health has very likely extended and improved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, and can serve as a positive model for the rest of nation.
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