Healthy Aging After SCI

Reprinted from PN December 2007

Growing older brings certain problems, but you can take important steps to remain active.

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Many of us have negative stereotypes about aging. The myth is that getting older means being ill. But this isn't necessarily the case. While aging does present certain inevitable challenges, we now can take steps to maintain a high level of health and function in advancing years, even with spinal-cord injury (SCI).

A recent study in Great Britain followed 834 people with SCI for more than 25 years. The researchers found that regardless of age, length of time since injury, and injury severity, perceptions of overall health were quite high (more than 70%) and actually improved over time, until subjects reached the 40-years-post-injury milestone, at which point people reported a decline in perceived overall health. This suggests there may be things to watch out for when approaching the 40-year mark.

Cardiovascular Health and Metabolic Syndrome

We are particularly concerned about the risk of heart disease in people with SCI. Metabolic syndromea condition associated with high risk of heart attack, stroke, and other complicationsis especially common in the SCI population and consists of four major characteristics:

Obesity. This is common in SCI, mainly because it (often) doesn't take a lot of energy to push a manual wheelchair or operate a power chair. As a result, it is easy to consume too many calories for the amount of energy expended.

Insulin resistance and diabetes. This means insulin is there but unsuccessful in bringing glucose to cells. And cells, because of inactivity and other factors such as obesity, are less efficient at using insulin. As a result, fasting blood sugars tend to be a little higher in people with SCI, and the ability to manage large glucose loads is worse.

Poor cholesterol profile. Specifically, this means low levels of the "good" cholesterol (high density lipoprotein, or HDL), which goes around mopping up the bad cholesterol off vessel walls. Exercise contributes to a rise in HDL, and people with SCI tend to have lower HDL than others their age because of lack of exercise. HDL can be improved with exercise, as well as taking one or two drinks (especially red wine) per daybut no more than that.

High blood pressure. Even though people with SCI generally have lower blood pressure, obesity tends to bring it up and it becomes a concern.

All these symptoms tend to increase with age in the general population, and perhaps at a slightly younger age in people with SCI.

Read more to find out how you can fight back against obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, a poor cholesterol profile, and high blood pressure.


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