We want to get the most out of life at all ages – and that includes our later years. Thanks to health care advances and a greater understanding of what it takes to live longer and healthier lives, senior citizens are better able to stay active and engaged late into life. Indeed, for many – after a lifetime of working and raising a family – the golden years can be some of the most enjoyable, filled with travel, recreation, time spent on hobbies and grandchildren.
Taking care of ourselves as we age is the key to getting the most out of our later years. So how do you give yourself the best opportunity to lead a full life late into your 70s or even beyond? With average U.S. life expectancy now more than 78 years, this goal is not unrealistic at all. Of course, it won’t happen by itself – people have to be intentional about taking good care of their physical and mental health.
Keep Up with Screenings & 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 four immunizations that are especially important for older adults:
- First is the annual flu vaccine, which is available beginning in September of each year. The flu is a serious illness that can lead to further complications, especially in older people. The combination of flu season with the COVID-19 pandemic is especially worrisome, so everyone should get a flu vaccine as soon as possible this year. See this month’s article about the flu for more details.
- Tetanus is a type of bacteria that live in soil, dust and manure and can enter the body through a superficial wound, even one as minor as a cut or scrape. Getting a tetanus (Td) booster every 10 years throughout our lives is critical to protecting against this risk.
- At age 65, adults should get the pneumonia vaccine (PPSV23). Senior citizens are much more susceptible to developing pneumonia, a severe respiratory illness that claims the lives of more than 50,000 Americans each year. PPSV23 helps protect against 23 different strains of pneumococcal bacteria.
- The shingles vaccine is recommended for anyone who is 50 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. The vaccine consists of two doses, 2-6 months apart.
Finally, all seniors should plan on getting a vaccine for COVID-19 when it becomes available, hopefully in early 2021. Since seniors are most at risk for severe complications from COVID-19, it is likely they will be prioritized to receive the vaccine before the younger population.
Eating the appropriate amounts of the right foods is important at any age, but it matters even more as people get older. We need to make sure we don’t eat too much – but equally important, we need to make sure we get enough to eat.
A mix of healthy foods is a key contributing factor to good cardiovascular health and helps to decrease the odds of developing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Conversely, eating too much or eating unhealthy foods can contribute to the onset of these conditions and increase risk for heart disease.
“You want to have a diet that has the right balance of carbohydrates, fiber, fat and protein,” says Dr. Errol Bryce, an internal medicine physician. “For most people, that mix can be achieved by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and some lean meat and fish on some, but not all, days. It’s important to be mindful of portion sizes and avoid overeating, to reduce the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain. Being overweight or obese is associated with a greater risk of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol levels.”
Another downside of carrying around excess weight is the increased strain and pressure on joints. For people with arthritis, extra pounds can worsen the symptoms. “Even a few extra pounds can cause excess strain on knees and hips,” warns Dr. Tim Shepherd, a family practice physician. “Gaining weight can make it harder to move – that means you’re less likely to be physically active, which in turn will have a negative impact on your weight and cardiovascular health.”
“For some older folks, eating too much is not the problem – it’s the opposite. When we get older, we tend to slow down and move less,” explains Dr. Raymond Blair, a family medicine physician. “A decrease in physical activity can lead to a decline in appetite. Eating somewhat less as we age is normal, but if we don’t get enough to eat, 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 promotes a healthy digestive process and prevents constipation. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is important to strengthen bones and helps decrease the odds of osteoporosis.
Finally, like people of all ages, seniors need to be intentional about drinking water. It is easy to get dehydrated if you don’t get enough water to drink and that is especially true at advanced ages. Generally, everyone should get the equivalent of eight 8-ounce servings of water a day.
“Research has also shown that as we age, our ‘sensors’ that tell us we are thirsty begin to fail,” explains Dr. Blair. “This is why seniors often end up dehydrated. We spend a lifetime living in such a way that if we drink water whenever we are thirsty, we will be fine. At older ages, if we continue to only drink when thirsty, we will be dehydrated all the time. We must make a conscious effort to drink more fluids.”
IMPORTANT NOTE: Before beginning any exercise routine, visit with your physician 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 aid cognitive ability, improving memory and problem-solving skills. People of all ages 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.
“You don’t have to have a gym membership or buy expensive equipment to stay physically active,” explains Dr. Curtis Evans, an internal medicine physician. “Go for a walk to get in some cardio exercise. You can do bodyweight strength training exercises, such as pushups, to maintain some muscle. Those simple steps will go a long way toward keeping you in shape.”
Additionally, exercises such as yoga and tai-chi help to improve balance and flexibility, which in turn help reduce the risk of falling.
Physical activity is also a key contributor to maintaining proper balance and avoiding falls.
We want to avoid injury at any age, but especially when we’re older. The older we are, the longer it takes our bodies to recover and we are also more prone to complications. Falling is the most common injury risk 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.
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.
Here are some of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of falling:
- Wear your glasses or contacts when walking
- Always use the handrail when walking up or down stairs.
- Install a grab bar in the shower/bathtub.
- Use a rubber mat in and outside the shower.
- Wear shoes with a rubber sole and avoid walking in socks or slippers.
- Maintain floors that are free of clutter and make sure rugs are secured to the floor.
- Keep your rooms well-lit and avoid trying to walk in the dark. Keep a flashlight near your bedside.
- If you have pets, always be mindful of where they are. Don’t let your dog or cat get under your feet.
- Use a cane or walker for additional stability and control.
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. A fall may be the result of an underlying health condition.
Protect 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. Impaired vision can lead to dangerous falls and can be dangerous when walking or driving a car. 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.
Get 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. Seniors who have trouble getting enough sleep should talk with their doctor about it.
Just as people naturally slow down some physically in their later years, the brain can slow down a little bit also – this is usually perfectly normal and not a sign of concern.
Memory loss is one of the major symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Everyone suffers from memory loss periodically; occasionally forgetting where you put something does not mean you have Alzheimer’s. However, forgetting things often and repeatedly may be an indication of a problem. After the age of 60, if you or a loved one begin to have trouble remembering basic information in the course of your daily activities, have trouble handling money and paying bills, or experience challenges with other routine tasks, then you should visit with your physician and share your symptoms. Everyone’s brain works differently and there is much that doctors do not yet know about Alzheimer’s. Additional symptoms which could indicate Alzheimer’s include:
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
For people who are not experiencing these types of serious problems and are simply coping with the effects of normal aging, there are several things they can do to help stay mentally fit:
- Getting enough to eat and maintaining a healthy food intake
- Getting plenty of exercise
- Having frequent social interactions with friends and family
- Learning new things
- Engaging in mental exercise, such as doing crossword puzzles or playing chess
- Managing stress
Make Your Golden Years Some of the Best Yet
Getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop living life – in fact, you may find your senior years to be some of your best yet. Take care of yourself and follow your doctor’s advice on healthy living to give yourself the best opportunity to make the most of this time in your life.
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