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Old and alone

Many in the ‘me generation’ face a lonely future 


Øystein Alsaker/flickr, modified by WORLD

Old and alone
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Nearly one-quarter of Americans over age 65 are at risk of becoming “elder orphans,” a new term used to describe aging people who are single and childless, according to a study conducted at the geriatric and palliative medicine department of the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York.

Increasing numbers of single people who do not have children are heading into their senior years alone. One-third of Americans between the ages of 45 and 63 are single, an increase of 50 percent since 1980. The number of women aged 40 to 44 who are childless has nearly doubled since that time.

Elder orphans face a wide range of potential difficulties, including health issues, mental health decline, and premature death. Research author Maria Torroella Carney said they will require more community and social services, emergency response, and education. Although it is hard to draw conclusions based on one study, it is likely that decisions to remain childless, which increased with the baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1964, are a contributing factor. “My generation was one of the first that elected not to have children,” Joyce Varner, director of the Adult-Geron Primary Care Nurse Practitioner program at the University of South Alabama, told CNN.

Varner began to see the problem surfacing in the 1990s. “I see a lot of sadness and regret on the part of the elderly people who decided not to have children,” she said. “A lot of fear. ‘How are we going to get care? Is there going to be anyone with me at the end of life?’”

“It comes down to the chickens have come home to roost for people who were young in the ’70s and ’80s and thought children were a burden,” said Glenn Stanton, director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. This generation became known as the “Me generation,” spawning a societal devaluation of children and the double-income, no-kids group that didn’t want to be tied down. They didn’t want children to get in the way of “their self-actualization,” he said.

With the advent of the pill, having sex no longer had to mean having babies; with legalized abortion, becoming pregnant no longer had to mean becoming a parent. Environmentalists, meanwhile, sounded the alarm about a population explosion, claiming the earth didn’t have enough resources for everybody and we were ruining our world. The ideological impact of those warnings made remaining childless seem like a virtue, Stanton said. But it was blown out of proportion. The population bomb never exploded. And now a significant number of the Me generation are facing their senior years alone.

Smoke screen

E-cigarettes, once promoted as an aid to stop smoking, are not reducing the number of teen smokers. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of middle- and high-school students using e-cigarettes has tripled in just one year, from 660,000 to 2 million students between 2013 and 2014. Overall tobacco use has not declined in the last three years. Nearly one-quarter of high-school and 7 percent of middle-school students use some type of tobacco product.

E-cigarettes are not harmless. They combine a poisonous substance with unsafe chemical mixtures, said Garry Sigman, director of the Loyola University Health System Adolescent Medicine Program.

“We want parents to know that nicotine is dangerous for kids at any age, whether it’s an e-cigarette, hookah, cigarette, or cigar,” said CDC director Tom Frieden. “Adolescence is a critical time for brain development. Nicotine exposure at a young age may cause lasting harm to brain development, promote addiction, and lead to sustained tobacco use.”

The modern aspect of e-cigarettes appeals to adolescents whose world revolves around technology and electronics. “The development and marketing of e-cigarettes has the potential of hooking a whole new generation on nicotine,” Sigman said. —J.B.

In the blood

Each year more than 14,000 women in the United States die of ovarian cancer, a disease often undetected in the early stages because symptoms frequently do not appear until it is well-advanced. Current screening methods have not decreased the death rate.

But now, researchers at the University College London (UCL) have developed a blood test for ovarian cancer that tracks changing levels of the protein CA-125. The new test correctly diagnosed 86 percent of deadly and invasive epithelial ovarian cancer cases during the 14-year study—twice as many cases as conventional screening methods are able to pick up, according to The Independent.

The study included more than 200,000 post-menopausal women, aged 50 and above, randomly assigned to different screening strategies. “While this is a significant achievement, we need to wait until later this year when the final analysis of the trial is completed to know whether the cancers detected through screening were caught early enough to save lives,” said UCL professor Usha Menon. —J.B.


Julie Borg

Julie is a World Journalism Institute graduate. She covers science and intelligent design for WORLD and is a clinical psychologist. Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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