Aging, disease, and disability are often thought of together, an inevitable part of growing old. Fortunately, this is not true! While we all do age, disease and disability are mostly due to the physiological stresses our bodies encounter over the years. There are many steps we can take to reduce these stresses as we age and therefore decrease disease and disability, improve our health, and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle in our elder years.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends five key areas we should focus on as we age:
Practicing any of these five habits individually can decrease your risk of physical disability and memory loss as you get older, but the positive impact becomes even more significant when you practice all of these recommendations together.
Below, I’ve provided a bit more detail about each one.
Eating a Balanced Diet There is so much information available about what you should and shouldn’t eat that it can get pretty confusing. Should you strive to eat fewer carbohydrates or low fat? And what about all those diets you hear so much about like Atkins or the South Beach diet? The NIA is a great source of information on making smart food choices for people over the age of 50.
Keeping an Active Mind and Body Keeping an active mind as you age helps to decrease your risk of developing dementia and depression. Make sure you are enjoying life by seeking out hobbies and participating in social activities with others. Volunteering is a great way to share the knowledge you’ve gained over the years and meet new people. You can also read this blog post about Preserving Memory Function as you Age, written by my colleague Dr. Eliza Shulman, to get more information on ways to keep your memory intact.
Increasing your physical activity level has many positive benefits, such as improving your ability to cope with chronic disease, helping you prevent disease and prolonging your life. The more activity you do the more benefit you will reap. Again, doing all or some of these recommended activities will have a positive effect on your health, but be sure to check with your doctor before beginning any type of exercise program!
Tobacco use alone accounts for 20% of premature deaths. You might think, “I’m 70 years old, why quit now?” The reason is that you can still improve your health and add years to your life! There are many health benefits of quitting smoking, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. When you quit smoking, you will be able to breathe easier. You’ll also have an improved sense of taste and smell so you’ll enjoy your food more. Smoking is a very expensive habit, so if you quit, you’ll save yourself a lot of money. If you smoke, make a firm decision to quit by setting a stop date. Seek help from your doctor and sources such as 1-800-QUIT-NOW, which is a toll-free number operated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) that will connect you directly to your state’s tobacco quitline.
Making a Transportation Plan – Driving “Retirement”
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, people 80 years and older have the highest rate of fatal crashes per miles driven, which is even higher than the rate for teens. Various health conditions and declines in visual, thinking, and physical abilities that occur with aging can often affect driving ability. With that in mind, experts recommend you should plan to outlive your driving ability by 5-10 years. What that means is that you should make a plan for alternative methods of transportation before you make the decision to stop driving.
Giving up driving can be a difficult decision. You give up some of your independence and you are at an increased risk for isolation and depression when you stop driving. Explore alternative transportation options by talking with family, friends, and local community organizations such as Elder Services, Council on Aging, and 1-800-AGE-INFO. You may want to schedule an assessment with a driving rehabilitation specialist who can help you determine if driving is still a safe option for you. Another great source of information for elder driving workshops and alternatives to driving is the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Regular Well Visits
Making appointments to get regular check-ups with your primary care doctor can ensure you continue to stay healthy and maintain a good quality of life as you age. The leading causes of death for those 65+ years of age are heart disease, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory disease. Your doctor can screen for these diseases, and if they are detected early, there’s a greater chance for successful treatment. It’s important to treat and keep conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol under control; doing so will reduce your risk further for health complications and diseases.
Another topic for your well visit is immunizations. Make sure you keep up-to-date with your vaccines, and if you’re not sure if your immunizations are current, talk to your doctor. Here are some important vaccines to consider:
There is no way to stop the aging process, but if you take care of your body by exercising and eating healthy, build and maintain a social support network, develop a sense of purpose by volunteering or participating in a hobby, and keep a positive attitude, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a long, happy and healthy life.