Many people find that as they age and enter their sixties and seventies, they are embarking on some of the best times of their lives. For people who have worked their entire lives, retirement provides new-found time to devote to recreation, travel or long-neglected hobbies and interests. It can also mean precious time to spend with grandchildren and other family members. People who are healthy get the most out of these years and are better able to spend them doing what they want to do.
As life expectancy in the United States has increased to an all-time high of nearly 79 years, more people are able to live healthy lives with active lifestyles well into their seventies and beyond. Of course, that doesn’t just happen by itself – people have to take care of themselves and take advantage of the advances in health care.
Eating the appropriate amounts of the right foods is important at any age, but it matters even more as people get older. A mix of healthy foods is a key contributing factor to good cardiovascular health and helps to decrease the odds of developing high blood pressure or diabetes. Conversely, eating too much or eating unhealthy foods can contribute to the development of these conditions and increase risk for heart disease.
“Generally speaking, a diet featuring plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and some lean meat and fish will go a long way toward good overall health,” says Dr. Charles Carlton, an Internal Medicine physician. “Equally important is eating appropriate portion sizes – it is important that we don’t overeat and cause weight gain. Being overweight is associated with a greater risk of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol levels.”
Another complication of weighing too much is the increased strain and pressure on joints. For people with arthritis, extra weight can worsen the symptoms. “Even a few extra pounds can compromise our knees and hips,” warns Dr. Rajni Kalagate, a rheumatologist. “If added weight makes it harder to get around, you’re less likely to be physically active, which in turn will have a negative impact on your weight and cardiovascular health.”
Sometimes the opposite problem is a concern with older people – not getting enough to eat, as Dr. James Parker, an Internal Medicine doctor, explains: “As we get older, we tend to slow down. After we retire, we probably don’t have to move as much as we did when we were working, and a decrease in physical activity can lead to a decline in appetite. Eating somewhat less as we age is normal, but if we are not eating enough, that means we won’t get enough essential nutrients and minerals in our diets.”
Another benefit of a balanced, healthy diet is that it’s good for the digestive system. Consuming adequate fiber through fruits, vegetables and whole grains helps ward off constipation. So does drinking water. “Adequate water consumption is a key – and often overlooked – component of good health. It’s easy to get dehydrated if we’re not intentional about drinking enough water. That’s especially true as we get older,” says Dr. James Harvey, a primary care physician.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Before beginning any exercise routine, visit with your physician first to ensure that exercise is safe for you. Exercising with an undetected, underlying health condition can result in serious injury, illness or death.
Being physically active and exercising goes hand-in-hand with a healthy diet when it comes to controlling weight and promoting heart health. Exercise burns calories and activities such as walking, jogging and swimming provide a workout for the heart, helping to strengthen it. The human body realizes these health benefits at any age.
For older people, however, the health benefits don’t stop there. Some studies suggest that physical activity can improve cognitive ability, improving memory and problem-solving skills. People who are physically active are less likely to suffer from depression and are better able to alleviate stress.
Exercise has been shown to help prevent or delay the onset of a number of chronic conditions that affect many older adults, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and arthritis. Even for people who already have one or more of these conditions, physical activity can be an effective and important component of a treatment plan, helping to lessen their impact.
“As I tell my patients, being physically active does not mean you have to go out and spend a bunch of money on a gym membership or exercise equipment,” says Dr. Steven Meyers, a sports medicine doctor. “You can go for a walk every day and maintain your strength by doing some light training exercises with resistance bands or doing push-ups.”
Physical activity is also a key contributor to maintaining proper balance and avoiding falls, one of the most common injury risks for older adults.
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than one out of three people age 65 and older fall each year. Falls are the leading cause of trauma-related hospital admissions for older adults and can lead to serious injury, disability, reduced quality of life and death.
Falls frequently cause fractures. A hip fracture is one of the worst injuries that can result from a fall, as it necessitates extensive rehabilitation. A senior who suffers a hip fracture, yet is in overall good health, is more likely to be able to go home after surgery and rehabilitation. However, a patient who is already frail or has underlying chronic health conditions is more likely to end up in a nursing facility after leaving the hospital, dramatically reducing quality of life and increasing likelihood of mortality.
In addition to exercising in order to maintain strength, you can reduce your likelihood of falling by wearing your glasses or contacts, eliminating hazards in the home, such as loose rugs and objects in walkways and holding on to railings when using the stairs.
Sometimes when people stand up, they feel light-headed or dizzy and lose their balance. If you experience light-headedness or dizziness at times, you should let your doctor know about it. Similarly, if you have fallen – even if you have avoided injury – you should talk to your doctor about it. A fall may be the result of an underlying health condition that your doctor can diagnose and treat.
Protecting Your Eyesight
It is not uncommon to experience some changes in vision as we get older. Regular eye exams are important to detect changes in the eyes and allow for correction, if necessary. Some diseases of the eye are more prevalent in older people:
Glaucoma is a set of eye diseases which damage the optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness. It is generally caused by elevated pressure in the eye, brought about by an accumulation of fluids. Damage caused by glaucoma cannot be reversed, which is why early detection through regular eye screenings is so important. While treatment cannot undo damage caused by the disease, it can slow its progression and mitigate the effects of it. Eye drops and oral medication can be prescribed to lower the pressure in the eye and in some cases, surgery is an option to treat glaucoma.
Age-related macular degeneration affects one’s ability to see objects clearly. It diminishes the central vision, which is crucial to common tasks, such as reading.
Regular eye exams are essential for detecting these and other eye disorders, allowing for treatment as soon as possible. And if you have a prescription for corrective lenses – glasses or contact lenses – wearing them is one of the most important things you can do to prevent falls and other injuries.
Getting Enough Sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for the human body at every stage of life. Sleep is vital to our physical health and mental sharpness; if we don’t get enough of it, we put ourselves at risk for making mistakes and injuring ourselves or others. Poor sleep habits also negatively affect our heart health, body weight and mental health.
Older adults need plenty of sleep – seven to nine hours a night, about the same amount as adolescents. However, a lot of people aren’t able to get that much sleep – they have difficulty falling asleep or wake up frequently throughout the night. This inevitably leads to feeling tired and less sharp throughout the day.
“Contrary to what many people believe, difficulty sleeping is not a normal or natural aspect of growing older,” says Dr. Errol Bryce, an Internal Medicine physician. “Plenty of older people are able to get a good night’s sleep each night with or without the use of medications. If you’re not among them, you should visit with your doctor. There are treatments available that can help you sleep better.”
Keep Up with Screenings and Immunizations
As with people of any age, it is important for older people to stay up to date on regular health screenings and immunizations. Regular screenings at intervals recommended by your physician are essential to early detection of health concerns such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease and some types of cancer.
There are three immunizations that are especially important for older adults:
First is the annual flu vaccine, which is generally available beginning in September of each year. The flu is a serious illness that can lead to further complications, especially in older people.
Adults over the age of 65 should also get the pneumonia vaccine, which involves one shot and then a different vaccine a year or more later. 50,000 people die from pneumonia each year and older people are particularly vulnerable to it.
Finally, the shingles vaccine is recommended for anyone who is 60 or older and has ever had the chickenpox or chickenpox vaccine. Shingles is a painful skin rash and the vaccine has proven effective at greatly reducing one’s risk of getting the disease.
Getting Older Doesn’t Mean Living Less
As we lead longer lives, it’s more important than ever that we take care of our bodies and minds so we are able to make the most of those extra years we have before us. Eating right, getting enough exercise and staying on top of any chronic health conditions are the key ingredients to a healthy and enjoyable time in our older years. And remember, your doctor is there to help you make the most out of this time and live a full and healthy life.
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