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UGA Extension helps Georgians age, live better

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

There are nicer ways to say it, but Georgians are getting older and fatter. Both problems cost many people their independence or lives to soon. University of Georgia Cooperative Extension is gearing up now to help Georgians live longer, healthier and happier.

Senior adults make up 9 percent of Georgia’s population. By 2030, one out of every five Georgians will be a senior adult.

“Our growing, aging population will have specific needs that we are preparing to meet,” said Jorge Atiles, associate dean for outreach and extension of the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “UGA Cooperative Extension is putting more research and resources into geriatric services that will educate seniors on living healthier, more productive lives.”

Health problems are preventable.

“Poor nutrition in seniors can prolong recovery from illnesses, increase costs and incidence of institutionalization and lead to a poorer quality of life,” said Connie Crawley, a UGA Extension health and nutrition expert. “Good nutrition, on the other hand, can help lessen the effects of diseases including osteoporosis, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and gastrointestinal problems.”

According to the 2006 Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, 72 percent of adults in Georgia between 55 and 64 are overweight or obese. Almost 60 percent of people over 65 are.

In Stewart County, 30 percent of seniors live in poverty and 26 percent have less than a ninth-grade education. “Information that leads to better health and nutrition is vitally important for this population group,” said Sandra Gay, a UGA Extension agent in Stewart County.

Seniors in Telfair County face limited transportation and healthcare options. “These factors prevented many of our seniors from getting the proper nutrition and health information,” said Laura Smith, a UGA Extension agent in the county.

Heart disease causes the most deaths in Georgia. But diabetes is growing rapidly.

In 2006, 608,000 adults in Georgia were diagnosed with diabetes. For every two Georgians diagnosed with diabetes, another has not yet been diagnosed. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in Georgia, causing five deaths a day. For each death attributed to diabetes, at least two more have diabetes as a contributing factor.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physical activity can prevent, delay or control many of the chronic diseases that plague older adults. The Georgia Department of Human Resources reports men and younger adults are more likely to be active than women and older adults. Inactivity contributed to 3,581 deaths, 21,538 hospitalizations and $542 million in hospital charges in 2003.

“Georgians have to get up and get moving,” Crawley said. “Only 42 percent of adults in Georgia exercise regularly. Yet, we know inactivity is a major contributor to the development of Type 2 diabetes.”

Inactivity is expensive, too. The latest economic figures from the CDC show that obesity costs Georgians $2.1 billion annually in medical expenditures. Obese people have a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in risk for all causes of death.

When obesity is coupled with complications from diabetes the price grows. In 2005, diabetes cost $250 million in hospital charges in Georgia. “If all medical costs and costs attributed to pre-mature death and lost job productivity in Georgia were added together, the actual economic impact of diabetes would be closer to $4 billion per year,” Crawley said.

Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, kidney disease, non-traumatic amputations and retinopathy in the United States. According to the American Diabetes Association, the per capita medical cost for diabetes has increased 30 percent from an average of $10,071 in 1997 to $13,200 in 2002.

In 2006, UGA Extension provided more than 46,500 hours of nutrition and chronic disease educational programs to 25,727 Georgians. Most were low-income.

“Problems and challenges facing our society don’t go away, they just change,” Atiles said. “We constantly seek to conduct research and develop meaningful programs that get real results to help Georgians live healthier, more productive lives.”

(Faith Peppers is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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