Aging can be defined as: “progressive changes related to the passing of time.” While physiological changes that occur with age may prevent life in your 70s, 80s and beyond from being what it was in your younger years, there’s a lot you can do to improve your health and longevity and reduce your risk for physical and mental disability as you get older.
Research shows that you’re likely to live an average of about 10 years longer than your parents—and not only that, but you’re likely to live healthier longer too. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 40.4 million Americans (about 13 percent) were 65 years of age or older in 2010 and by the year 2030, almost 20 percent of the total U.S. population will be 65+.
So how do you give yourself the best possible chance for a long, healthy life? Although you aren’t able to control every factor that affects health as you age, many are in your hands. Some keys to living a long, healthy life include:
• Make healthful lifestyle choices—don’t smoke, eat right, practice good hygiene, and reduce stress in your life
• Have a positive outlook
• Stay as active as possible—mentally and physically
• Take safety precautions
• See your health care provider regularly and follow his or her recommendations for screening and preventative measures
One of the most important things you can do to stay healthy in your golden years is to maintain your sense of purpose by staying connected to people and things that matter to you. However, this isn’t always easy—especially in a society that all-too-often views older people as a burden.
Visit your local senior center. Spend time with at least one person—a family member, friend or neighbor—every day. Volunteer in your community, attend a local event, join a club or take up a new hobby.
According to our sister publication REMEDY’s Healthy Living Fall 2014, walking may help prevent physical disability later in life. In a large study of older Americans, researchers focused on sedentary men and women between the ages of 70 and 89 who either met twice a week for a supervised walk around a track and received instruction to walk or do balance and flexibility exercises three to four times a week at home or attended weekly workshops on healthy aging.
After an average of 2.6 years, the walkers were 28 percent less likely to have become persistently physically disabled than the non-walkers, suggesting that it’s never too late to start.
Stress and Aging
Stress can have an enormous impact on your health and your quality of life at any age—and even more so as you get older. In fact, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, depression and anxiety are linked to physical decline in seniors. Concerns like: “Will there enough money now that I’m retired?” and “What will happen if I get a serious illness or become disabled?” are common in older adults.
As you age, you’re also more likely to experience emotional trauma associated with loss—the deaths of people close to you (friends, family members, spouse), your own health, and/or your independence. For many seniors, dealing with the loneliness caused by multiple losses can lead to a diminished investment in life—especially when combined with other issues, like financial concerns.
Try these tips to help deal with difficult changes:
• Focus on being thankful. Appreciate and enjoy your life and don’t take people or things for granted.
• Acknowledge your feelings and express them. Talk to a friend, family member or health care professional, write in a journal or join a support group.
• Embrace your spirituality.
• Accept that some things are out of your control.
• Try to keep your sense of humor.
Seniors are at increased risk for depression. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or unable to cope or deal with stress, it’s important to reach out to family, friends, caregivers and health care providers. To locate services for older adults (and family members) in your area, visit the Eldercare Locator provided by the U.S. Administration on Aging or call 1.800.677.1116.
Health Concerns in Your 70s and Older
The risk for certain medical conditions—including heart attack, stroke, dementia, diabetes, lung disease, chronic pain, some types of cancer and other health concerns increases with age. However, healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce your risk for many of these issues. Helpful tip: Put “ICE” (in case of emergency in your cell phone contact list in front of the name(s) of family member(s)/friend(s) to call if something happens to you so bystanders or first responders will know who to get in touch with.
Here are some other common problems that can develop, even in relatively-healthy seniors:
Balance Disorders—Many older people experience problems with balance and dizziness (vertigo). There are many different causes for balance disorders, so contact your health care provider if you feel unsteady or dizzy. Falls and fall-related injuries (including hip fractures) are serious concerns that can have a significant impact on your life and your ability to live independently. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of adults 65 years of age and older fall each year, and falls are the leading cause of injury-related death in seniors.
Memory Problems—It’s important to know: While some degree of forgetfulness is normal with age, significant memory loss or cognitive decline is not an inevitable part of normal aging. If you experience mental lapses that interfere with daily life, contact your health care provider. Serious memory problems or a decrease in cognitive function may be caused by a treatable, underlying condition—such as dehydration, malnutrition or sleep deprivation—or a medical problem like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Inadequate Nutrition—As you get older, it’s more important than ever to eat right to stay healthy and maintain energy levels. However, good nutrition is a challenge for many seniors. Changes in your senses of taste and smell can affect your appetite. Slower digestion and metabolism can change how your body processes food. You may have difficulty shopping for, purchasing or preparing nutritious foods and meals.
If you’re having trouble maintaining a healthy diet, talk to a family member or your health care provider. Many communities have programs that provide healthy meals to seniors.
Changes in digestion also increase choking and food-borne illness risk in older adults. As you age, your body produces less saliva and stomach acid and your digestion slows down. These changes make it easier to choke on foods and make it harder to get rid of harmful bacteria in your system. Also, changes in smell and taste may impair your ability to know when a food is spoiled.
Slower digestion also can cause constipation. Make sure to get enough fiber—found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains—in your diet.
Lack of Exercise—Exercise is an important part of a good health at every age; however, many older adults don’t get the recommended amounts of physical activity. Staying active can boost vitality, help maintain strength and flexibility, improve mental function, reduce your risk for health problems, and even help relieve chronic pain. Be sure to talk to your health care provider before beginning an exercise program.
Find an activity you enjoy and begin slowly. Try to incorporate endurance activities, strengthening exercises, stretching and balancing exercises into your exercise program. Good choices include walking, swimming, biking, gardening, tai chi and exercise classes designed for seniors.
Trouble Sleeping—Many older adults do not get enough sleep. Insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep) and excessive daytime sleepiness are common problems. Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH, enlarged prostate), which affects as many as 90 percent of men in their 70s and 80s, can cause frequent nighttime urination that disrupts sleep.
If you’re having problems sleeping, talk to your health care provider. These good sleep hygiene tips might be helpful:
• Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet and that it’s not too warm.
• Adjust your bedtimes. Go to bed when you feel tired and get up at the same time each day.
• Turn off the TV at least one hour before going to bed.
• Wind down before bed by taking a bath or listening to soft music.
Other Concerns in Your 70s and Older
Safety is a serious issue for many seniors—especially those who are living alone and experiencing varying degrees of physical and/or mental decline. In addition to falls and choking hazards, concerns include the following:
• Driving safety (Giving up driving means giving up a measure of independence. Seniors may be unwilling to stop driving, even though continuing to drive can pose a safety risk for themselves and for others.)
• Fire/smoke safety (Memory lapses, which are more common in older adults, increase the risk for household fires caused by cooking, candles or smoking. It’s important to have working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in your home.)
• Extremely hot or cold weather. (Seniors are at increased risk for health problems caused by hot or cold temperatures, especially when the cooling or heating systems in their homes aren’t functioning properly.)
Older adults are at increased risk for certain types of crime, including burglary and fraud—identity theft, fake check and wire transfer scams, investment and credit card fraud and fake online charity solicitations.
Unfortunately, many also are at risk for another type of crime that takes place in their home, in the home of a family member, or in a living facility or nursing home and is committed by people responsible for their care. Called elder abuse, this type of crime can take many forms. Elder abuse can be physical, emotional (psychological) or sexual. It may involve neglect, abandonment or financial exploitation. Physical elder abuse is the non-accidental use of force against an elderly person that causes injury or pain. It includes hitting, shoving and kicking, as well as misusing drugs, restraints or confinements on a person who is elderly.
• Emotional or psychological elder abuse can be verbal or non-verbal. It includes intimidation (e.g., through yelling or threatening), humiliation and ridicule, as well as ignoring, terrorizing or isolating the elder from family and friends.
• Sexual elder abuse involves sexual contact with a senior without his or her consent, as well as forcing the elder to view pornographic material, watch sexual acts or undress.
• Neglect and abandonment are the most common type of elder abuse. They involve failing to fulfill care-taking obligations—either intentionally or unintentionally.
• Financial exploitation elder abuse involves the unauthorized use of the elder’s assets—funds or property. It also includes health care fraud and abuse, which is carried out by unethical health care providers and involves charging for health care services not provided, overcharging for services, over- or under-medicating, and insurance fraud.
Health Care Recommendations in Your 70s and Older
The risk for a number of medical conditions increases with age. In fact, some studies show that the average person 75 years of age has three chronic medical problems—ranging from minor to serious. If you have concerns or questions about your health, talk to your health care provider. You may find it helpful to have a trusted family member or friend accompany you to your medical appointments.
One of the most important ways to stay healthy in your 70s and beyond is to seek the care of a geriatric physician, also called a geriatrician. Geriatric physicians are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and disability in older adults. They are specially-trained in the aging process and provide comprehensive health care.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicators that can be used to help assess health in older adults have been identified. These indicators are related to health status, health behaviors and compliance with preventative care recommendations and include the following:
• Number of physically unhealthy days reported per month (due to illness or injury)
• Frequent mental distress (depression, stress, anxiety or emotional problems reported on 14 or more days per month)
• Complete loss of natural teeth
• Current smoking status (smoker or non-smoker)
• Lack of leisure time/physical activity
• Regularly eating fewer than 5 fruits and vegetables per day
• Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or greater)
• Reported disability (physical, mental or emotional) that limits activity or requires special equipment (cane, walker, wheelchair, hearing-impaired telephone)
• Hip fracture
• Receiving a yearly flu vaccine
• Following routine health care / screening procedure recommendations (cancer, high cholesterol)
General health care recommendations in your 70s and older include the following:
• Blood pressure screening—every 2 years or as recommended
• Bone mineral density test—as recommended to screen for osteoporosis (bone loss)
• Cholesterol screening—every 5 years or as recommended
• Colorectal cancer screening—as recommended
• Dental exam—every 6 months or as recommended
• Diabetes screening—every 3 years or as recommended
• Eye exam—every 1 – 2 years or as recommended by an ophthalmologist
• Hearing test—yearly or as recommended
• Immunizations—yearly flu vaccine, herpes zoster vaccine (to prevent shingles; if not previously vaccinated), pneumonia vaccine (as recommended, if not previously vaccinated), tetanus (every 10 years)
• Mammogram (women)—as recommended by your health care provider
• Pelvic exam (women)—yearly or as recommended
• Pap test (women)—as recommended by your health care provider (Most women over the age of 65 usually do not need this test.)
• Prostate cancer screening (men)—as recommended by your health care provider
• Thyroid test (TSH)—as recommended by your health care provider