If you’re 40 or 50 or even 60, you might not give much thought to the health challenges of aging. But just as planning for future financial needs is important, so is planning for optimum health.
What should you prepare for, and how? Sharon Brangman, MD, AGSF, spokeswoman for the American Geriatrics Society, says, “The more you do in middle age to prepare yourself for successful aging, the better.”
1. Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome
About three-fourths of adults aged 60 and older are overweight or obese. Obesity is related to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast and colon cancer, gall bladder disease, and high blood pressure.
“Women in perimenopause and menopause tend to accumulate fat around the waist and hips, and men get fat in the gut,” says Brangman. “The best way to fight it is with increasing exercise, reducing alcohol intake and reducing calorie intake. Also, increase your healthy fat intake of omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats. And eliminate trans fats completely because there’s no safe amount of those.” She also advises avoiding foods sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. The common sweetener is found in everything from sodas to breakfast cereal to low-fat yogurt. “In middle age, we should eat foods as close to naturally prepared as possible.”
Arthritis affects nearly half the elderly population and is a leading cause of disability. The keys to prevention: avoid overuse, do steady, regular exercise rather than in weekend spurts, and stop if you feel pain. “The adage, ‘no pain, no gain,’ is not true.” And managing your weight is just as essential for joint health as cardiovascular health. The Framingham osteoarthritis study showed that a weight loss of just 11 pounds could reduce the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knees by 50%.
3. Osteoporosis and Falls
Osteoporosis and low bone mass affect almost 44 million adults age 50 and older, most of them women. According to the National Osteoporosis Association, osteoporosis is not part of normal aging. Healthy behaviors and treatment, when appropriate, can prevent or minimize the condition. “Stop smoking, watch your alcohol intake, get plenty of calcium, and limit foods with high acidic content,” says Brangman. Vitamin D, “the sunshine vitamin,” is also important.
Risk for developing most types of cancer increases with age. “As women age, the rate of cervical cancer decreases, and endometrial cancer increases,” says Brangman. It’s important for women to get regular exams, even after her childbearing years.”
The risk of prostate cancer increases with age. Screening should start in your 40s, and at the very least should involve a digital rectal examination.
5. Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular diseases, which are diseases of the heart or blood vessels, are the leading cause of death in the U.S. A healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 80%, according to data from the Nurses’ Health Study. Researchers showed that women who were not overweight, did not smoke, consumed about one alcoholic drink per day, exercised vigorously for 30 minutes or more per day, and ate a low-fat, high-fiber diet had the lowest risk for heart disease.
6. Vision and Hearing Loss
Age-related eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma, affect 119 million people aged 40 and older. “Eating foods with high antioxidant content may be helpful in reducing vision loss due to macular degeneration,” says Brangman. “And taking vitamin supplements for eye health may help.”
The incidence of hearing loss increases with age. Twenty-nine percent of those with hearing loss are 45 to 65; 43% of those with hearing loss are 65 or older. Her advice to people at any age: don’t use earbuds. “Any source of sound that fits in the ear canal, such as earphones, really puts your hearing at risk. If you’re going to use an iPod, don’t put it directly in your ear, and lower the volume.”
Kimberly Harms, DDS, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association advises brushing twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste, flossing daily to remove plaque, and visiting your dentist regularly.
8. Mental Health
Forget what you think you know about memory loss and old age. It is not inevitable. So why do so many people say, “My memory isn’t what it used to be,” or “I’m having a senior moment?” Stress, anxiety, and mental overload are most likely responsible. “Stop multitasking,” says Brangman, who is professor and division chief and geriatric medicine director at the Central New York Alzheimer’s Disease Center, SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York “Our brains are made for us to do one thing at a time. Multitasking overloads the brain so people aren’t remembering things and get concerned they’re having memory problems.”
Doing the things that keep your heart healthy will also keep your brain healthy. “The same blood vessels that go to the heart branch off and go to the brain. Exercise, control your blood pressure, quit smoking, and if you have diabetes, keep it under control.”
Staying mentally active is as important as staying physically active, says Raymond L. Crowel, PsyD, Vice President for mental health and substance abuse services for Mental Health America. Join a book club, stay up to date on current events, engage in stimulating conversations, and do crossword puzzles. “The new rage is Sudoku puzzles. They’re absorbing and require a tremendous amount of concentration, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in getting it right.”
Do Your Part
Much of the illness, disability, and deaths associated with chronic disease are avoidable through known prevention measures, including a healthy lifestyle, early detection of diseases, immunizations, injury prevention, and programs to teach techniques to self-manage conditions such as pain and chronic diseases, according to the CDC.
And while the future will undoubtedly bring medical advances in treatments and cures, Brangman advises taking care of what you have. “Our original parts are the best. If you can keep your own parts, that’s the best way to go.”