A widely held belief is that it is best to age-in-place. The rationale goes like this: people are more comfortable in the house they know; surrounded by familiar objects and routines; old age is not a time to make big changes. Baby Boomers say that they plan to age-in-place, but they have not thought out the basis.
THE TRUE COST OF AGING-IN-PLACE…
In a recent blog, we suggest that Baby Boomers might find that the desire to age-in-place is in conflict with their need to stay “wellderly” (well+elderly). The suburbs do not contribute to a healthy lifestyle when residents are more sedentary, exercise less, and have more difficulty staying connected. If retirees become house-bound, they can suffer from more anxiety and depression. Baby Boomers are being sold a bill of goods about aging-in-place if they think that renovations like grab bars, non-slip floors, and extra lighting are panacea to age-in-place. If the Baby Boomers choose to age-in-place in suburbia, they will come “head to head” with their lifestyle choices.
MAKING GOOD CHOICES AT THE NEIGHBORHOOD LEVEL
Meanwhile, there is research from a different arena that informs us about the importance of making good choices at the neighborhood level. An University of Pittsburgh study conducted in Amsterdam (and reported in an open access journal called PLOS ONE), compared residents (of all ages) who lived in different types of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods were rated on a scale that assessed noise levels, vandalism, and an unsafe feeling when walking alone.
After controlling for outside factors, the researchers found that people who lived in “bad” neighborhoods were biologically older by about 12 years than those who lived in “safer” areas. The researchers measured the length of telomeres, which are thought to be a marker of aging cells. Telemeres are described as protective caps on the ends of chromosomes; they shorten with each cell division. At some critical length, the cell stops dividing or dies. The length of telomeres were measured in this study. They key finding, associated with locality, is this: the subjects with shorter telomeres resided in the less safe neighborhoods with more crime or noise.
LINKING NEIGHBORHOODS AND HEALTHY AGING
Scientists are looking for links between the length of telomeres, weight, stress levels and physical mobility. The research is too nascent for Baby Boomers to be asking their real-estate agent to report “telomeres scores” for different homes. However, they can use a short-cut to assess whether they should age-in-place or move. It is called walkability. If they can safely and enjoyably access places on foot like stores, community centers, and recreation, it is probably a neighborhood where telomeres are long, drive time by auto is short, and aging-in-place is going to be a healthy option.