5 steps to prevent boomers' poor health from bankrupting America

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America, we have a problem that needs your attention: Millions of overweight, out-of-shape, diabetic, heart-clogged boomers are lurching toward their retirement years, thinking they're entitled to trillions of dollars of medical care in their retirement years from a nearly bankrupt Medicare system. The simple truth is that we -- individuals, employers, and our government -- just won't be able to afford the looming avalanche of bills for the medical and long-term care these boomers will need in the years to come.

Noted author and gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., recently summarized the financial challenges we face in his excellent article, Riding the Age Wave: How Health Care Can Stay Afloat. According to Dychtwald, we've developed a medical system that's very effective at diagnosing, preventing, and treating acute illnesses and accidents, but isn't very effective at preventing or treating the chronic, degenerative diseases that a lot of us develop in our sixties and beyond. Many of these diseases are the result of our lifestyle choices; simply put, we eat too much unhealthy food and don't get enough exercise, and too many of us still smoke or abuse alcohol and other medicinal substances.

And we haven't even talked about the threat of Alzheimer's disease that will require more long-term care than we, as individuals and a nation, can possibly deliver. For our detail-oriented readers, see Dychtwald's article for the stats on the explosive growth in the numbers of elderly Americans in the years to come, and the associated medical and long-term care costs if we continue toward this inevitable train wreck. These numbers will convince you that we indeed have a problem and that all of us have a role in preventing this dire future.

So what should we do? Dychtwald proposes five solutions we can take as a nation to keep our healthcare system afloat as boomers age into their retirement years:

1. Promote scientific research needed to delay or eliminate the diseases of aging. While nearly one-third of our healthcare dollars are spent on people age 65 and older, the diseases of aging receive a much smaller share of the medical research dollars spent on prevention and treatment. For every dollar we spend treating the chronic diseases of aging, we spend less than a penny trying to prevent them.

2. Train more competent, aging-ready, healthcare professionals. We have a dearth of healthcare professionals who are trained to help prevent and treat the chronic diseases of old age. For example, a 2006 study mentioned in the article reported that in the U.K., half of all medical schools have a department of geriatrics but only 10 percent of U.S. medical schools have such a department. We just aren't training enough doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals in geriatrics and other age-related specialties.

3. Make disease prevention and self-care a national priority. Recent research has consistently shown that we can dramatically reduce the odds of expensive, chronic diseases by taking care of our health. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 50 percent of our potential for lifelong health is determined by our lifestyle choices. Dychtwald's article contains several examples of the billions we can save by eating the right types and amounts of food, and getting the right exercise.

4. Shift our focus to home-based care, wherever possible. Technologies are being developed that will enable us to live at home instead of moving into expensive assisted living facilities or nursing homes as we age. For instance, new devices and software might enable telemedicine and telediagnosis through a telephone line, Internet, or wireless connection. This technology will provide more cost-effective access to services, and will help us avoid unnecessary emergency room and clinic visits, and will allow for preventative medicine and early intervention.

5. Offer the option for a more humane approach to death. Today, medical technology makes it possible to continue human life well beyond the point where death would have occurred in the past. And although studies show that the overwhelming majority of men and women would prefer to die at home, only about 20 percent of deaths occur at home today. We simply spend too much money postponing the inevitable. We should think about what a "good death" means to us and discuss our wishes with our family. We need to take advantage of counseling to inform us of our treatment choices at the end of life and move beyond immature and self-serving opposition to "death panels that will kill granny."

Planning your retirement: Invest in your health
Should you buy long-term care insurance?
How to slow aging and save money through exercise
Don't let Alzheimer's and dementia spoil your retirement

While the first two solutions described above certainly make sense to me, there's not much I can do personally to make them happen, other than to inform myself and vote accordingly. But there's a lot within my control when it comes to the last three solutions. Rather than fret, worry, or whine, I'm motivated to take every possible action step with my lifestyle choices to stay out of an expensive medical system. I've got a strategy to address the threat of ruinous long-term care expenses, so my wife and I won't be a burden on our children or society. I hope you'll take these action steps as well.

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    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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