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The Aging Worker and Concerns for the Workplace

I had the pleasure of listening to Barb Banford speak at the AOHNA Symposium last week. She is as funny as she is intelligent, and put into perspective how the normal physiological and mental changes we experience can have an impact on the workplace. Our workforce is aging, and many people do not have the financial ability, or simply choose not to retire between the ages of 60 and 65.

Related Stats (Dyck, 2013):


  • In 1991, 63% of the Canadian workforce was between the ages of 20-62 years.
  • By 2001, the number of workers aged 45-64 years of age had increased by 35.8% and the median age of Canadian workers reached an all-time high of 37.6 years
  • By 2008, the average age of Canadian workers was 41 years of age, with the median age group being between 45-49 years.
  • In 2012, though the average age for retirement was 62 years, the employment rate for workers over the age of 65 years was 11.3%.




Senescence is described as the rate and deterioration of the structure and function of body parts. We reach a peak in our functional reserve capacity at age 24, and hold steady until approximately the age of 30. After this time, there is a gradual decline (approximately 1%/year) to baseline which is reached between the ages of 72 – 77. There is however a more rapid decline with chronic diseases such as poorly controlled diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Let’s briefly look at some of the changes and how these changes could potentially affect the workplace.

Cardiac output, muscle mass, liver function and renal function decrease by 1% per year after the age of 30.

So what can we do to help attenuate this process?

To help keep our hearts healthy and muscles strong we need to exercise, be nice to your liver by drinking alcohol only in moderation, and consume plenty of fluids a day. Keep your kidneys healthy keeping your blood pressure within normal limits, keep your weight within normal limits for your body type, and keep your cholesterol in check. Reducing animal protein in your diet is only helpful if you already have renal dysfunction.

As we age, we also experience changes in our vision and hearing. We typically see accelerated loss in vision between the ages of 50-69 years of age due to loss of elasticity in the lens. Some companies may choose to have extra ‘readers’ in their workplace to assist workers with reading of small print and/or jobs that require tasks involving vision and the use of fine motor skills. Other changes that may occur include a reduction of eye mass and loss of retrobulbar fat which results in ‘sunken eyeballs’. This results in a loss of upward gaze and peripheral vision, which could have negative implications for workers that have to climb ladders, or who are required to drive at work. Our pupil size also decreases requiring the aging worker to need more lighting. Hearing loss is accelerated after the age of 40, in which many occupations can have an impact. High pitched tones that we detect at 30 decibels at age 30 have to be boosted to 90 decibels for the elderly to hear.

Our brains change also as we age. The total loss of brain volume between our teen years and age 75 is 15% or more. It is estimated that there is a 5% loss in cerebral weight in females by age 70, and a 10% loss in men. Workplace stress reduction classes, meditation or yoga classes can help protect our brains from deterioration. By reducing stress we decrease the amount of cortisol being released into our bodies. Chronic elevated levels of cortisol can lead to fatigue, decreased mood and increased stress levels. Laughter also decreases cortisol.

Lastly, a few things to consider when assessing muscle aches and pains. Did you know that thyroid dysfunction and Vitamin D deficiency can cause muscle aches and pains? Did you know that ED (Erectile Dysfunction) Drugs can cause muscle pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and blue vision?The blue vision could have a negative impact on workers that rely on color vision to read instrument panels. It is for this reason that pilots cannot take ED Drugs less than 6 hours prior to flying.

It’s inevitable that we are going to age, but if we recognize the normal changes in ourselves and in others, we can assist to make the changes easier to cope with.

 

 

References:

Dyck, D.E.G. (2013). Disability management: Theory, strategy & industry practice (5th ed.). Markham, ON: LexisNexis.

Written By: Melanie Ashton, SureHire Occupational Health Nurse – June 3rd 2014