Your doctor's in shape… but may just be getting in shape to retire

U.S. doctors as a group are “leaner, fitter and live longer than average Americans… male physicians keep their cholesterol and blood pressure lower… women doctors are more likely to use hormone-replacement therapy than their patients,” according to several recent surveys.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that they are taking all this health and fitness into early retirement. And thanks to the hordes of baby boomers hanging up their stethoscopes for good, finding enough doctors in any shape at all is going to be a challenge, particularly in light of the numbers of newly insured.

Nearly 40 percent of doctors are 55 or older, according to the Center for Workforce Studies of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Included in that group are doctors whose specialties will be the pillars of providing care in 2014, when the overhaul kicks in; family medicine and general practitioners (37 percent); general surgeons (42 percent); pediatrics (33 percent), and internal medicine and pediatrics (35 percent).

About a third of the much larger nursing workforce is 50 or older, and about 55 percent expressed an intention to retire in the next 10 years, according to a Nursing Management Aging Workforce Survey by the Bernard Hodes Group. New registered nurses are flowing from colleges, but not enough to replace the number planning to leave the profession.

“Moving into the future, we see a very large shortage of nurses, about 300,000,” said Peter Buerhaus, a nurse and health-care economist and a professor at Vanderbilt University. “That number does not account for the demand created by reform. That’s a knockout number. It knocks the system down. It stops it.”

According to the census, baby boomers include the 66 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

In an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association, Buerhaus and colleagues Douglas Staiger and David Auerbach predicted that there will be at least 100,000 fewer doctors in the workplace than the 1.1 million the federal government projects will be needed in 2020 under the health-care overhaul.

“There’s a much more rapid retirement of physicians,” Buerhaus said. “What does this retirement mean? This will mean at least 100,000 fewer doctors in the workplace in 2020.”He said the article does not estimate the change in demand or the level of recruitment by medical colleges, which is being beefed up significantly under the health-care law.

Although current studies involve more than a little conjecture — Will professions in the medical field continue to be as attractive as other areas? Will doctors and nurses work longer if truly needed? — there is no doubt about the coming shortage.

Lori Heim, president of the American Association of Family Practitioners, said someone might soon have to replace her. “My age group is looking at when we are going to retire,” said Heim, who is 54. “More physicians are changing their practice, doing things that have less calls. They want administrative roles.”

Heim said her statement is based on an impression. “I haven’t seen any numbers on this.” But, she said, her association is among the many that for years have pointed out the shortage of primary care doctors and nurses to the White House and Congress.

Staying healthy might be the best defense.

Retirements by baby-boomer doctors, nurses could strain overhaul.

Your arteries know your REAL age

1.11.09: CHD, here we come!
Image by Team Dalog via Flickr

Heart attacks, strokes and a long list of other artery-related afflictions top the list of health risks for the 50-and-over population — and a rising number of those even younger. So figuring how old you really are is an increasingly big deal. If your history includes cigarettes and fast food in abundance you might not want to know. But your arteries hold important information.

Wall Street Journal writer Ron Winslow reports on the intricate business of determining your vascular age — and why that’s an important determination to make.

Several tools are available that enable doctors and patients to calculate vascular age. These suggest there can be a substantial difference between how old you are and how old your blood vessels are. For instance, the vascular age of a 35-year-old man who smokes and has diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol could be as high as 76 years old—more than double his chronological age, according to a recent study. The arteries of a 30-year-old woman with similar risk factors could be equivalent to those of an average woman who is more than 80 years old.

Such a calculation “gives a sense that your risk-factor burden is making you age faster than you think you are,” says Donald Lloyd-Jones, a preventive cardiologist at Northwestern University, Chicago, who co-authored the recent study, which appeared in the journal Circulation last August. “The more you can make it concrete, the better you can impart information about risk.”

The good news, doctors say, is that by taking steps to reduce risk factors and the damage they inflict on arteries, it is possible to turn back the clock on vascular age.

Some of us — long-time smokers, members of a family with genetic problems that can’t be overcome — might not be able to access the good news. But many can, and for them, a few changes in lifestyle, or manageable medications, can make a lifetime of difference.

  • A 42-year-old man who smokes and has total cholesterol of 180, good cholesterol (HDL) of 45 and systolic blood pressure of 125, has a vascular age of a 54-year-old. If he quits smoking, his vascular age could drop to 42, the same as his chronological age.
  • A 52-year-old nonsmoking woman, who has total cholesterol of 220, HDL of 44 and systolic blood pressure of 135, has a vascular age of a 68-year-old. If the woman reduces her cholesterol below 200, her vascular age could drop to 59 years old.

If you’re feeling your age today, maybe your arteries are trying to tell you something.

Arteries Can Reveal Your Risk of Heart Disease – WSJ.com.

Grief: A mind/body conundrum

Physician treating a patient. Red-figure Attic...
Image via Wikipedia

This is a cautionary tale.

The main character, a woman of a certain age, became concerned about suddenly being short of breath. Nine months earlier she had defended her title in a 5k community road race, so it didn’t seem to make sense that she would be huffing and puffing after one block on a slight incline. She worried more and more, and finally went to see her primary care physician.

“No,” said the doctor, “this should not be. We’ll start with a stress test to check out the heart, and then go with a pulmonary function test. Recent x-rays haven’t shown anything wrong with your lungs, but we’ll want to make sure.”

The patient aced the stress test, which relieved everyone. Subsequently, at the end of the pulmonary function tests she did the six-minute walk, as instructed, regular pace, and the nurse who had been following along in case she conked out said, “Well, you’ve got no shortness of breath, and I’m exhausted.”

In between, an interesting thing had happened. During a visit with her niece, who is a family practice physician in another state, the medical dilemma happened to come up. “Well,” said the niece, rather gently, “you’re doing all the right things: seeing your doctor, having a stress test first, checking pulmonary function. But when all is said and done you did just lose a sister to respiratory failure, while you were still grieving the loss of another sister almost within the same year…   It could be that your body is just trying to tell you something.”

Almost immediately I felt better. Went ahead with the pulmonary function test just to err on the side of caution, but by then I was feeling so much better that just walking around that hospital corridor at what felt a leisurely pace was still enough to wear out a nurse who is 10 years younger. She hadn’t told me she was required to follow. And of course, at the start of it all, I hadn’t thought to mention anything about sibling loss to my primary care doctor. Communication is good.

Soon afterwards, I attended a meeting at which the keynote speaker was Lyn Prashant, founder of an organization called Degriefing. Among the handouts was a page headed “Common Grief Reactions,” featuring lists of physical, emotional and mental responses to grief. Number 5 under Physical? You guessed it: shortness of breath.

Who knew? Certainly not this writer, who has only spent the past three decades intensely involved with end-of-life issues. Hospice volunteer, part of an AIDS support group throughout the 1990s, currently a chapter board member and client volunteer for Compassion and Choices, author of dozens of articles and one book about end-of-life issues. Never heard of any of those physical manifestations of grief — or if I had, they were too abstract to register.

That was then, this is now: Loss, sorrow, grief — is it all in your head? Maybe not.

Medical marijuana: a boon & a challenge

When my sister Mimi found that marijuana could relieve her severe gastrointestinal distress, years ago, one joint after dinner was all it took. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep up the supply. After one foray into the rather scary realm of pot-dealing in a state (Georgia) where we could have wound up in jail very quickly, we decided that not even such clear relief was worth the risk.

Today, at least in California and 14 other states — with the District of Columbia possibly to be added soon — the risk is minimal but the dosage is fuzzy. The conundrum was outlined by writer Lena K. Sun in the San Francisco Chronicle:

On Tuesday, District of Columbia officials gave final approval to a bill establishing a legal medical marijuana program. If Congress signs off, D.C. doctors – like their counterparts in 14 states – will be allowed to add pot to therapies they can recommend to certain patients, who will then eat it, smoke it or vaporize it until they decide they are, well, high enough.

The exact dosage and means of delivery – as well as the sometimes perplexing process of obtaining a drug that remains illegal under federal law – will be left largely up to the patient. Doctors say that upends the way they are used to dispensing medication, giving the straitlaced medical establishment a whiff of the freewheeling world of weed.

Even in states where marijuana is allowed for medical use, doctors cannot write prescriptions because of the drug’s status as an illegal substance. Physicians can only recommend it, and have no control over the quality of the drug their patients acquire.

Because there are no uniform standards for medical marijuana, doctors have to rely on the experience of other doctors and their own judgment. That, they say, can lead to abuse.

California’s “quick-in, quick-out mills” that readily hand out recommendations have proliferated, worrying advocates. The state, the first to legalize medical marijuana 14 years ago, allows for a wider range of conditions, including anxiety.

To guard against abuse, some doctors say they recommend marijuana only after patients exhaust other remedies. Some doctors perform drug tests as part of pre-screenings.

Mimi died over a year ago. Her last decades, like almost all of her adult life, were spent in the State of Georgia, where medical marijuana is still against the law. I know what her required dosage was; legalization and proper oversight would allow doctors to learn dosages that work for their patients. It seems worse than cruel that thousands of other sick and dying citizens continue to be denied the potential relief that legalized medical marijuana could bring.

Dispensing medical pot a challenge for doctors.

Dementia: stories and sources

The post about dementia sufferers and their tendency to wander (May 6) evoked a host of stories about temporarily lost parents, grandparents, friends and relations. Almost everyone, it seems, has such a story — and unfortunately, those who haven’t may collect one or two in the future.  Reader Cathy Jensen sent a poignant tale of a friend who went wandering in his pajamas during the pre-dawn hours, but was found by the garbage collectors and brought home on the back of their truck. And reader Tom McAfee, en route to see his own mom and hopefully jog memories of children and grandchildren with photos, sent a link to a podcast aired on WNYC in March.

An offbeat idea, the WNYC piece explains, turned out to be a good solution for a nursing home in Germany from which residents were wandering off. Administrators created a bus stop in front of the home, complete with bench and a painted sign for a bus that never came. It provided a place where many wanderers could sit and wait until the urge to go back home, or elsewhere, melted away. Might not work everywhere, but it worked in Dusseldorf.

And reader JTMcKay4 sent, in case you missed them in the comments section, links to the Alzheimer’s Association’s “Safe Return” program and to a source for a long list of related documents. State-specific advance directive forms can also be downloaded, free, from the “Caring Connections” site maintained by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association site, and this space remains committed to the support of the nonprofit Compassion and Choices, from which forms can also be downloaded.

There is no guarantee against winding up in a memory unit. But a little preparation can go a long way toward helping if the time comes.

When Mom & Dad go wandering: dementia on a relentless rise

“MISSING,” the sign reads. “Distinguished-looking elderly man. 6′ 1” slightly stooped. Gray hair. Wearing dark blue sweater and gray slacks. Name: George; does not always respond. Suffering from mild dementia. Wandered away from the Laurel Village shopping center area. Please call 415-xxx-xxxx with any information.”

The sad, 8″ x 10″ flyer has appeared (once the words were slightly different, but it was clearly the same George) at the bus stop near my home twice in recent months. I kept the number in my wallet for a while, hoping I might spot him because I walk the city myself. But the difference is that I have on a warm jacket — it’s way too cold in San Francisco, especially after dark, for only a sweater — and I know how to get home.  I have wanted to call the number and learn whether George got home, but it seems intrusive.

Last year for the first time, as reporter Kirk Johnson writes in The New York Times, people like George and a 60-year-old Virginia woman named Freda Machett accounted for more missing-person alerts than children and adolescents. They are confused and lost, and often are not found in time.

Ms. Machett, 60, suffers from a form of dementia that attacks the brain like Alzheimer’s disease and imposes on many of its victims a restless urge to head out the door. Their journeys, shrouded in a fog of confusion and fragmented memory, are often dangerous and not infrequently fatal. About 6 in 10 dementia victims will wander at least once, health care statistics show, and the numbers are growing worldwide, fueled primarily by Alzheimer’s disease, which has no cure and affects about half of all people over 85.
It started with five words — ‘I want to go home’ — even though this is her home,” said Ms. Machett’s husband, John, a retired engineer who now cares for his wife full time near Richmond. She has gone off dozens of times in the four years since receiving her diagnosis, three times requiring a police search. “It’s a cruel disease,” he said.
“You have to stop thinking logically, because the people you’re looking for are no longer capable of logic,” said Robert B. Schaefer, a retired F.B.I. agent who cared for his wife, Sarah, for 15 years at home through her journey into Alzheimer’s. He now leads two-day training sessions for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

How to deal with dementia is the most bewildering of end-of-life issues, whether for oneself or for a family member. Most of us would choose almost any other scenario for our last months or years, but the choice is often not ours to make. We can file advance directives (mine includes a “Dementia Provision“) and express our wishes and do brain exercises; still, one in seven Americans, according to most fairly recent reports, now suffers from dementia and the numbers are on the rise.

Here’s one interesting perspective. My greatly beloved brother-in-law, who recently relocated with my sister to a retirement community, has Parkinson’s. Though his mobility and function are diminished, the disease has yet to affect his mind. Several weeks ago he told me he no longer fears dementia. “I see people more and more with varying stages of dementia,” he said, “and I believe you can be happy.”

But you can also wander off.

More Wander Off in Fog of Age – NYTimes.com.

Dr Oz worries about cell phones too

More on cell phones and brain tumors: a reader yesterday sent along a link to an earlier commentary by Mehmet Oz, the cardiac surgeon/author/media guru who has also weighed in with advice that links between cell phone use and cancer are indicated.

We rely on them to connect us to the people we love, to help us stay organized, and, in an emergency, to keep us safe. But more and more experts are saying that cell phones may pose a very serious health risk – increasing your chance of developing a brain tumor.

That means that over 270 million Americans may be playing Russian roulette with their cell phones every day. Each year, more than 21,000 adults and 1,500 children are diagnosed with brain tumors, and researchers believe some of them may have been caused by talking on a mobile phone.

A new study examined a decade’s worth of research and concluded that people who use cell phones for more than 10 years are up to 30% more likely to develop brain tumors than people who rarely use them.

Nothing has shown proof — yet — that if you use a cell phone often enough, long enough, you’re going to get brain cancer. Dr. Oz lists ways to improve your chances — keep your phone in your pocket, use it on speaker (and Lord help us all when everyone’s not just on cell but on speaker…), use wired rather than wireless when possible. And however much some of us vow we’ll resist texting to the bitter end, atrophied thumbs might still be preferable to brain cancer.

Still, the cell phone industry is not going to issue credible warnings. The FCC should do so.

So many pills… so little memory

If you’ve ever had a serious or chronic illness you know the routine: a line-up of all the little pills beside the breakfast plate, or maybe one of those little-old-lady boxes with a cubicle for each day, or perhaps a high-end color-coded wheel of medical fortune.

Now, it turns out, for a mere $100+ or so you can have a machine that does it all for you. Counts out the pills, spits them into a little cup, rings a bell when it’s time to pop another, calls your family if you skip something. When technology can address an issue, count on someone to perfect it. Even if its complexity boggles the mind.

Actually, for aging adults who must rely on a whole bunch of pills, these devices turn out to be a real boon. We learned this in a news release just out from the Center for Technology and Aging, through its Medication Optimization Position Paper, which is far more useful than its tongue-twisting name would have you believe.

The Center for Technology and Aging, a non-profit organization that was founded in 2009 with a grant from The SCAN Foundation (www.thescanfoundation.org,) is affiliated with the Public Health Institute (www.phi.org). It aims to find and advance technologies that help older adults stay independent and lead healthier lives — including technology for monitoring patients, for helping with tasks, social networking… and keeping track of pills.

It turns out, there are pill-counting wonders of every sort and price range. So if you can’t remember which vitamin comes before which super-drug, or you think Mom and Dad won’t remember, there’s a tech-app for that.