Last summer, the
release of findings from the Women’s Health Initiative
sent up shock waves that haven’t died down yet. For
replacement therapy (HRT) had been hailed as a magical
remedy that cured menopausal symptoms but also protected against
disease, and Alzheimer's
disease. Instead, as our story (Estrogen
Update) explains, it turns out that HRT can actually increase
the risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Most
doctors now recommend that women use HRT only for short-term
relief of menopausal
symptoms, and stop HRT when symptoms abate.
Much of the widespread HRT use among American women resulted
from a tendency to treat menopause as a “disease”
that needed to be “cured,” rather than as a natural
part of healthy aging. In fact, much of our culture treats
aging itself as a disease—hence the proliferation of
anti-aging creams and other treatments to help mind and body
"stay young." But, of course, aging itself is not
a disease and many people maintain good health and strong
mental function even into advanced years.
But these "healthy agers" have been largely overlooked
while medical research has focused on diseases like Alzheimer's
and other forms of dementia. Of course, such research is of
vital importance to curing and preventing disease. But perhaps
it's time to stop focusing exclusively on the diseases that
can sometimes accompany old age, and to start paying some
attention to the healthy agers—and how they do it.
The MacArthur study, as our story (Use
It or Lose It) explains, is a step in that direction.
It followed a large group of seniors for several decades,
and attempted to determine what the healthy agers were doing
differently. Several trends emerged—the healthy agers
were more likely to be physically and mentally active, and
so on. Of course, we have to interpret these findings with
caution: just because physical and mental activity are correlated
with healthy aging, doesn't necessarily mean that they are
causing the healthy aging. But at least the MacArthur study
gives us a place to start in our understanding of what makes
some people age well—and it should give us all a better
appreciation of how aging, like menopause, is not a disease
to be cured, but a normal part of healthy life.
Catherine E. Myers, Ph.D.
Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University-Newark