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Johns Hopkins Bayview News - Ask the Expert: Aging In Today’s World

Summer 2013

Ask the Expert: Aging In Today’s World

By: Sara Baker
Date: June 3, 2013

John R. Burton, M.D., discusses how the way we care for older adults is changing—for the better


John R. Burton, M.D., standing in front of the John R. Burton Pavilion
John R. Burton, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Geriatric Education Center

John R. Burton, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Geriatric Education Center, believes that this is a very exciting time to be aging. We have a better understanding than ever of the unique challenges facing older adults, and better tools to help manage their conditions so they can live satisfying lives in their 80s, 90s and beyond.

Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center has a rich history in geriatrics. The Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology began in 1963, just two years before Dr. Burton joined the Medical Center as an intern. Subsequently as a faculty member, he helped to build the Division into what it is today.

In 1991, the Johns Hopkins Geriatrics Center was opened to replace the original long-term care facility and house the geriatrics allied programs. It was renamed the John R. Burton Pavilion in 2003 to honor Dr. Burton’s many contributions to the field. The Hopkins Bayview campus also is home to the Beacham Ambulatory Clinic (see page 11), an outpatient center for adults 65 and older; and three federal research programs, including the National Institutes on Aging (NIA).

Here, Dr. Burton shares a bit of the past, present and future of geriatrics care at Johns Hopkins Bayview.

What makes the geriatrics program at Hopkins Bayview so special?
When Mason F. Lord, M.D., established the Division of Chronic and Community Medicine here in 1963, he was remarkably visionary. Centers like this did not exist elsewhere. We saw a need to improve health care for elderly patients in our community. Today, we continue to be on the front end of development in geriatrics care, and we are very well balanced between our research, training and clinical programs. The federal research programs on this campus create a unique situation, and have deeply enriched the Division.

Is there any current geriatrics research that really excites you?
Geriatrics clinical research is robust. We are working to understand the biological mechanisms that lead to the syndrome of frailty (see page 6). NIA scientists are doing fundamental aging research to look at what is happening in the human body that limits life in the absence of disease, and discussing proteins that are associated with longer or shorter life spans. Clinicians in our group are working to see how we can create better, more cost-effective care for older patients.

How old are you? What do you do to stay healthy?
I’m 75.One thing that you learn as a clinician is that there are certain things you can do to tip the scale in your favor as you age. I don’t smoke, I eat a sensible diet, and I swim almost every day to stay active. I’m not an extremist, but I do try to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

What tips would you offer others to help them age gracefully?
While there is an element of “good luck” when it comes to aging, it’s very important not to smoke, or abuse drugs or alcohol. Maintain a healthy diet, low in salt and animal fat (see page 15), and manage your weight. Exercise is a critical element. It helps protect your joints and prevents coronary artery disease. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete; just do what’s within your ability. Choose an exercise program you can sustain, like walking, biking or swimming.

Remain active, both physically and mentally. Find something that engages you—that you can be excited about. You need to prepare for retirement, and develop activities that will continue to give you fulfillment. When you stop being active and are no longer engaged, that’s when you start to deteriorate quicker.

How is aging in today’s world different than it used to be?
When I came out of medical school, the life expectancy was 67.Today it’s 81 or 82.We’ve prolonged life, so now we see more chronic disease. It used to be that a patient would die of a heart attack or stroke, now we see more chronic heart disease or Alzheimer’s. We need to continue to improve our ability to control these chronic diseases, so we can continue to improve the quality of life for older adults.

Society needs to adjust to the progress we are making. I believe that older people can continue to contribute greatly, well into their 80s or 90s. We have to change the way we think about aging. There’s nothing older people can’t do if given time and determination.

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