Ageing And The Neurological Threat: Today's Prevention or Tomorrow's Problem

The percentage of Australians aged over 65 is increasing by the year, as part of a near-global trend towards ageing populations. As this trend progresses, chiropractors may find themselves caring for an increasing number of elderly people.

Gregory Petsko, an American biochemist and scholar, says the ageing population presents us with a problem: “Unless we do something to prevent it, over the next forty years we are facing an epidemic of neurological disease on a global scale [1].”

“For twelve thousand years, the distribution of ages in the human population has looked like a pyramid with the oldest on top. By 2050, it will be a column and will start to invert” says Petsko, as he describes the changing distribution across age-groups. “The average lifespan has doubled since 1840 and is increasing by about 5 hours every day.”

Petsko says this isn’t necessarily a good thing as the risk of getting Alzheimers or Parkinson’s disease increases exponentially over the age of 65. We have the potential for an epidemic of neurological problems in this growing population group unless science starts to tell us a lot more about how we can prevent such diseases.

Chiropractic must play a role in the management and prevention of neurological disorders in ageing and elderly people, as this sub-group of the population is turning to complementary and alternative healthcare (including Chiropractic) in increasing numbers.

Where previously, these people may have preferred traditional, pharmacologically-driven medicine, the percentage of older adults using alternative healthcare has increased over the last decade. In 2003, less than 48% of respondents in an American study reported using complementary and alternative healthcare. Of these, only 16.3% used chiropractic. Still, this placed chiropractic in the top five favoured modalities [2]. By 2007, that number had grown to 62.9% of respondents using complementary and alternative healthcare, and 17.8% of respondents choosing to see chiropractors [3].

Perhaps this upward trend is due to increased awareness and appreciation for the value of chiropractic, or as a result of long-term people ticking a different demographic box. Either way, once the person is on the adjusting table, the benefits of chiropractic can truly shine.

So how can we support optimal neurological function in ageing and elderly people, even acting to prevent neurological decline? Truly, there is a plethora of ways in which chiropractic can help. Here are just three of them, relating to neurological disorders and risk factors affecting the elderly:

  • A number of cases have been identified in which chiropractic care has helped decrease the symptoms and signs of Parkinson’s disease. In one such case, the person was cared for with a number of interventions including “blue-lensed glasses, vibration stimulation therapy, spinal manipulation and eye-movement exercises [4].” Within the first week of care, there was a reduction in symptoms, improvement in ambulation, and tremor. There is much research work to be done here, but it points us in a promising direction and reinforces the importance of chiropractic in enhancing and protecting function.
  •  High blood pressure has been identified as a significant risk factor in Alzheimer’s disease [5]. Though there is much research yet to be done to provide conclusive answers, some studies are indicating that spinal adjustments can indeed play a role in decreasing blood pressure and thus managing this risk [6]. New research by Bakris et al is set to investigate the potential of autonomic modulation therapies in targeting hypertension (and heart failure). Regardless of the outcomes of the study, the benefits of having a chiropractor who can adjust subluxations, enhance optimal neurological function and point people in the direction of healthier lifestyle can surely be of great benefit to patients. The earlier this occurs, the better, as Alzheimer’s starts in the brain some thirty to fifty years before symptoms can be seen [7]. Hence, the importance of nurturing wellness earlier on cannot be understated.

Of course the issue of Alzheimer’s Disease is complex, and a place in which General Practitioners and medical intervention certainly play roles. Managing hypertension, working with the client towards healthy and active living, and supporting optimal neurological function is only a starting point. We can’t identify all the risk factors in Alzheimer’s Disease yet, much less manage them all. But we can act to support the aspects of health that play such an important part in its prevention.

  •  Issues like back pain, neck pain, dizziness and falls often factor into the health concerns listed by elderly people. Preliminary evidence suggests that there is a role for neck adjustments in the prevention of falls in the elderly. “There is preliminary evidence that physical treatment of the neck may improve balance in neck pain patients. Therefore, it is important to examine the possible therapeutic effect of chiropractic interventions (particularly SMT) directed at the neck in treatment of this condition and prevention of falls in this subpopulation of the elderly [8].”

Of course, these are just three ways in which chiropractic can support optimal neurological function and support wellness in ageing and elderly people. We haven’t even mentioned the non-musculoskeletal benefits that can be reaped by being subluxation-free. But the truth of the matter is that it is far better to support health and wellness before the onset of Parkinson’s, Alzheimers or other serious neurological disorders than to intervene in the aftermath. And it is always better to be subluxation-free and have an optimal brain-body connection, than not.

As the population ages, optimal health and wellness must play an integral role in minimizing the fallout of neurological disorders. The evidence is showing there are roles for chiropractors to play in improving health and wellness, regardless of whether symptoms are present or not.

Surely, nurturing wellness early in life and providing a better platform for healthy ageing is a better place to start.