Geriatric psychiatrist Charles “Chip” Reynolds III has for decades been one of Pittsburgh’s and the nation’s leading scholars and
Geriatric experts dispute the notion that any physical or mental disease is caused by aging -- it is more the case that the aging process increases the risk of disease, and that the body and mind slow down for most people as they grow older. With the help of modern medicine, however, many more people remain productive into their 70s, 80s and beyond than was the case in the past.
The incidence of dementia, cancer, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and other chronic disease all increase with age, though there are steps people can take to help avoid them. There are no guarantees, because other factors including genetics also cause disease, but multiple studies have shown that preventive medicine and lifestyle choices play big roles in maintaining health well into retirement years.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Aging and Population Health promotes what are billed as the “10 Keys to Healthy Aging.”
The keys urge adults to:
1. Lower Systolic Blood Pressure (the top number in blood pressure readings)
2. Stop Smoking
3. Participate in Cancer Screening
4. Get Immunized Regularly
5. Regulate Blood Glucose
6. Lower LDL Cholesterol
7. Be Physically Active
8. Maintain Healthy Bones, Joints and Muscles
9. Maintain Social Contact
10. Combat Depression
Maintaining independence and quality of life is on most people’s minds because health risks increase with age. The majority of adults 65 or older have at least one chronic age-related health condition, such as elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol or high blood sugar. Management of such conditions is key to preventing heart attack or stroke, and medications may be needed.
A healthy diet, regular exercise, annual wellness checkups and flu and pneumonia shots are recommended, along with quitting tobacco products and limiting alcohol use. Research has suggested that a regular aerobic workout can be a big factor in slowing aging’s negative impact.
You don’t have to be a health-obsessed jogger to see benefits from exercise in your later years. Even a program of moderate physical activity is helpful in staying mobile and independent for the long run.
If nothing else, just walking 30 minutes each day helps maintain weight and balance and reduce the risk of calamitous falls and chronic disease associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Anything done to prevent falls and the injuries resulting from them is a huge benefit both to the affected individuals and the health care system as a whole, with injuries from falls to older adults amounting to more than $30 billion in direct medical costs annually.
For people motivated more by group activity, health insurance plans and fitness centers often have incentives aimed at the older population, and senior centers offer their own group exercise programs.
Hip fractures resulting from falls sometimes send an individual into a downward health spiral from which it’s hard to recover. To help avoid those, a number of safety steps are advised for older adults living at home, such as adding grab bars in bathrooms; making sure rugs don’t slide; maintaining adequate lighting; and keeping steps clear of potential hazards. Screening for osteoporosis can help by leading to effective therapies to improve bone density and prevent fractures.
Something as basic as regular sleep is important but often elusive for older adults. Fatigue increases the risk of falls and vulnerability to illnesses. Geriatricians advise maintaining a regular sleep schedule, even if a regular schedule seems less essential after retirement.
Depression is another common problem for older adults that is linked to other negative health conditions. Depression is highly treatable and not an expected consequence of aging. Social isolation can be avoided by maintaining contact with family or friends, volunteering in the community, keeping up some kind of work or using one of the agency services that provides regular home or phone checkups for those desiring it. (Call United Way at 2-1-1 for further information.).
Brain health is essential for independence. With an eye on maintaining mental sharpness, individuals may enjoy crossword puzzles, computer games, card-playing and other brain-stimulating methods. Research suggests, however, that the same physical activity that helps prevent cardiovascular disease also can reduce the rate of dementia, which is one more reason to pursue walking and other exercise.
There’s really no reason to think negatively about growing old, especially as thinking positively is itself a health benefit. In repeated studies, those in the oldest age group have pronounced themselves happier than younger people. The stresses of life, including responsibilities for children and pushing to get ahead in a career, fall by the wayside for those who have learned to feel content with their achievements.
University of Pittsburgh Center for Aging and Population Health, which focuses on research into healthy aging: http://www.caph.pitt.edu/
Through insurance plans, seniors frequently have free access to fitness centers and group exercise programs that are connected to the SilverSneakers program: https://www.silversneakers.com/
The National Institute on Aging provides recommendations on exercise, physical activity and other aspects of remaining healthy: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/featured/healthy-aging-longevity
Rachael Wonderlin, 28, is a gerontologist and dementia care consultant who has been a staff member specializing in care of those with
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