A multi-prong strategy of solutions by government agencies, businesses and nonprofits would promote healthful and successful aging for seniors and protect the environment at the same time, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives and pesticide control and neurological disease experts said an aging conference.

During a panel titled “Safer Chemicals, Healthier Aging: A Prescription for Positive Change” at the “Aging in America” conference in downtown Chicago by the American Society on Aging, four environmental protection advocates said seniors, government agencies, long-term care and healthcare industry leaders, businesses, investors, insurance companies, elected officials and community leaders must each play a role in a larger, long-running initiative to link a sound environment to healthy aging.

The panel featured Kathy Sykes, senior advisor for aging and sustainability in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development; Ted Schettler, science director of science and environment programming of the Collaborative on Health and Environment; Medha Chandra, PhD, international campaign coordinator of Pesticide Action Network North America and Jackie Christensen, state director and board member of the Parkinson’s Action Network/National Parkinson Foundation in Minnesota.

Research by the Collaborative on Health and Environment (CHE) — a California-based international partnership of 4,500 groups in 50 states and 79 countries, founded in 2002 and aimed at leading and guiding a scientific and public conversation on the impact of environmental pollution on human health — found that environmental pollution is directly tied to chronic illness.

Chronic illness is becoming more prevalent in seniors and is developing at younger ages among individuals in general than in previous decades. In turn, those stricken with such illnesses as diabetes, obesity and heart disease are at risk for mental health and neurological conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Meanwhile, researchers argued, the number of those aged 65 and over will double in the next few decades to more than 71 million, increasing the number of people at risk for illnesses influenced by environmental pollution.

Already, the Collaborative reported that tomorrow’s seniors are already at risk for poor health. Specifically, about two-thirds of the nation’s adults are overweight or obese. About 40 percent of adults are diabetic or pre-diabetic, which constitutes double the percentage two decades ago. Over five million people in the country have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease with the risk increasing with age.

Further, the Collaborative found that changes in how food is produced, processed and distributed leads to more digestion of calorie-rich, nutrient-poor food. Suburban development and greater use of personal and family vehicles translated into decreased physical exercise, less public space, more displacement of animals and plants from their natural habitats and reduced air quality.

With respect to aging, more seniors are living alone and are more likely to be poor and socially, psychologically and emotionally isolated as their children, grandchildren, relatives and friends live in other locales or die, and as an overall consequence of their isolation are more prone to lower quality of health, than those who live with others. Socioeconomic stress and social isolation are greatly influential in health status, disease risk and life span, Collaborative researchers said.

The increased incidence of disease and environmental pollution comes at a high cost to the public. Researchers report that chronic disease nationwide costs $1.8 trillion annually. Average health care costs per person are $5,000 to $6,000 a year, which doubles with diabetes. Annual costs for Alzheimer’s disease are well over $180 billion and between $13 billion to $28.5 billion a year for Parkinson’s disease.

Part Two: Connections to Air Quality

This article was originally published Feb. 18, 2014 on the website of PharmPsych.com, one of seven websites that comprise The Pharm Psych Network, a medical communications and education company.