By Paolo von Schirach
August 8, 2013
WASHINGTON – The 38 million strong AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) is often described as one of the most powerful lobbies in America. It is in fact the voice of the vast army of US pensioners. For this reason AARP is a staunch defender of the status quo when it comes to protecting existing Social Security and Medicare ( federal health insurance) programs and benefits for senior citizens.
AARP endorses services
It should also be noted that the AARP has built alliances with others who benefit from the status quo, such as companies that sell supplemental insurance that will pay for some of the medical expenses that the federally funded Medicare program will not cover. In other words, while the picture is not entirely clear, the AARP seems to have a bias in favor of keeping a system in which there is a high demand for medical services, some subsidized through federal entitlement programs, and some paid for by patients.
That said, to place all this in context, we should also point out that the extremely high and rising cost of Medicare and of all the additional services offered to Medicare recipients, (some of them with the blessing of the AARP), is in large measure due to the extremely bad personal habits of most Americans –and that certainly includes senior citizens.
Yes, America has become an obese nation. Bad nutrition and lack of exercise are the root causes of many illnesses. And it is a fact that a huge portion of the national health care bill is due to the need to treat totally preventable chronic diseases. And that includes the cost of Medicare for seniors. Yes, it is well known and now properly documented that chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, are totally preventable. Indeed, if most Americans, young and old, embraced a healthy life style in terms of diet and exercise, millions of people would not require medical attention, or at the very least they would require a lot less –and that includes the retirees that make up AARP’s membership.
Nothing on wellness education
In this context of high but preventable health care costs, it should be noted that the AARP magazine, the main vehicle used by the association to communicate with its members, does not focus on issues of wellness education and/or advice to seniors on how to stay healthy. Knowing what we know today about the value of prevention and the importance of spreading information about “wellness” and a healthy life style this silence is rather stunning. Is this reticence due to the fact that AARP does not want to cause problems with all the service providers who benefit financially from a high demand for medical care? I do not know for sure.
An article on Bill Clinton’s vegetarian diet
Still, given this background, I found it interesting that the AARP magazine published a fairly extensive spread on former President Bill Clinton (My Lunch With Bill, August/September 2013) focusing on his post-heart surgery super healthy eating habits. The article clearly explains what motivated Bill Clinton to adopt a vegan diet. He avoids meat and fish, processed foods, cheese and dairy products because eating them caused him to develop a serious heart disease that almost killed him. Being a smart man, Clinton finally learned what any American nutritionist can tell you: a mostly vegetarian diet is a ticket to good health and a longer life. And he is a pretty good living advertisement of the benefits of healthy nutrition. Now a senior citizen, Bill Clinton looks positively great. He is lean, healthy and in almost perfect shape.
The value of a good life style
His secret? His secret is simple: lots of veggies and fruits. The article provides details on what Clinton eats every day and it includes Clinton’s advice to all Americans to follow a similar healthy eating regime. He clearly explains how healthy food equals a healthier, mostly disease free, life. Coming from a well respected, intellectually gifted former President involved in all sorts of worthy causes, I would say that Clinton’s message is both credible and pretty compelling: “America: Change your diet. Adopt good eating habits in order to stay healthy and live longer”.
And yet, while the AARP magazine editors published the piece with some relevance, they put singer Gloria Estefan on the cover of the August/September issue, and not Bill Clinton and his diet.
And why is that? Clearly making the Clinton diet the cover story would have forced millions of readers to really focus on it. Whereas, by relegating it on page 38, this story can be viewed by many readers as a “color piece” on the somewhat bizarre eating habits of an ex President with a rather nerdish reputation. “Alright, this is interesting. Well, if eating carrots and broccoli works for him, let him do it. As for me, well, pass the ribs and corn bread, if you please”.
Why so little effort to educate seniors?
The AARP magazine has an enormous reach. I praise them for publishing this story on Bill Clinton’s healthy diet. However, if they were really serious about wellness education and its transformative effects, they could do a lot more. They talk mostly to millions of senior citizens, most of them with health issues. If they really wanted to help them, they should educate them on the life changing value of healthy eating. And do consider the compounded effects of a healthier America. This would translate into a lower demand for health care services and consequently a much reduced national health care bill. In case you wonder how big that bill is, it amounts to a stunning 17.5% of GDP, well over 1/3 higher than what other rich countries pay for health. And yet Americans are unhealthy and do not live long lives.
Prisoner of the status quo?
The only reason for not educating seniors about wellness is that the AARP may be prisoner of a really cynical calculation whereby there is nothing to be gained by upsetting the status quo, including the interests of all the medical insurance providers who benefit from AARP endorsements. As for the average AARP members, let them eat poorly so that they will have to go to the doctor who will prescribe cholesterol lowering medications.
Even though it is manifestly stupid to spend money to treat a condition that could be easily prevented, the fact is that doctors and pharmaceutical companies do not make any money when people are healthy. Under the present –horribly wasteful– system some people make lots of money.