Adults over the age of 50 represent a growing proportion of the U.S. population. That’s due to a several factors, including advances in healthcare and the aging of “baby boomers,” the second-largest living generation. Since 2014, 3 million boomers, Americans born between 1946 and 1964, have reached retirement age every year.
Many of these older adults are more active than their previous generational peers and many are health savvy. But many are also struggling with chronic conditions tied to being overweight or out-of-shape. Some are ignoring recommendations for regular check-ups and screenings designed to catch cancer early or prevent heart disease — the two leading causes of death among Americans.
“Many older adults are living active lives and working past retirement,” says Andrew Forster, M.D. , an internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care in Miami Beach. “The sooner one starts looking after their own health, starting with healthier eating and regular exercise, the sooner he or she will see the benefits – at just about any age.”
Many patients at or past middle-age are more likely to see their doctors regularly, compared to younger generations. But there is still room for improvement, says Dr. Forster.
“Primary care physicians help guide those over the age of 40 or 50 through the various cancer-screening guidelines for men and women,” says Dr. Forster. “That’s extremely important, as are annual checkups that can catch heart disease and other risk factors, such as pre-diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Here are 8 steps you can take to stay healthy as you age:
- Stay Physically Active
Regular exercise, or just staying physically active, can reduce your risk for most chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk of several types of cancers, new studies have shown. As you get older, staying physically active also promotes bone health. If a person is able to exercise, then performing regular weight-resistance exercises, even with light weights, can be extremely beneficial. This applies to older adults looking to prevent loss of bone density. Aerobic health can be achieved by brisk walking. For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association  recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week for a total of 150, or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week for a total of 75 minutes; or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. The AHA also recommends moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days per week for additional health benefits.
- Eat “Mediterranean”-Style, Well-Balanced Diet
As you age, eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables is even more essential, since aging increases even a reasonably healthy person’s risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions. Nutrition and medical experts have placed diets that focus on fruits, vegetables and prepared foods low in sugar and salt at the top of the list of best diets. Every year, U.S. News and World Report’s puts out a list of the best diets, as chosen by a panel of nutritionists, physicians and other experts. Of the 38 diet plans, the DASH diet came out on top, marking the seventh time it’s been rated as No. 1 overall. Launched by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute as a diet to help reduce blood pressure, DASH focuses on foods most everyone knows are healthy, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. DASH also restricts calorie- and fat-laden sweets and red meat. The Mediterranean Diet came in second on the list. It also recommends meals low in red meat, sugar and saturated fat, while promoting the “good” fats from olive oil or fish.
- Stay Socially Active With Friends and Family
Staying socially engaged with a wide circle of friends and family can help slow cognitive decline as adult age and maintain mental fitness, according to a recent study by the AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), which includes scientists, health professionals and scholars. The report highlights the benefits of having pets, how age-friendly communities boost social ties, how close relationships benefit both physical and mental health, and how social media can help older adults maintain social connections. “We know that loneliness and social isolation can increase physical health risks for older people,” said Sarah Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy, and GCBH executive director.
- Don’t Neglect Regular Check-Ups and Screenings
Even older adults can have a tendency to skip regular checkups and the recommended screenings for heart disease and several types of cancers. Age is a major risk factor for many diseases, including neurodegeneration which encompasses dementia. Translation: the longer you live, the likelier you’ll develop a health problem. Regular checkups usually include blood tests that cover risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, including cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Blood pressure is usually monitored by primary care physicians. It’s also important to follow recommendations for cancer screening tests . These screenings are used to find cancer in people who have no symptoms. Screenings gives you the best chance of finding cancer as early as possible – before it has spread.
- Take Medications as Directed by Your Doctor
All adults who take medications to treat chronic conditions should not deviate from their doctor’s instructions and they should keep up with regular checkups. Many older adults take meds to control blood pressure, blood sugar and control pain associated with arthritis or other conditions. Nearly half of older adults are treated at some point are treated for high cholesterol with medication. Many can wean themselves off some meds with healthier dieting, exercise and weight management. Do not substitute prescribed medications with multivitamins or other commonly sold supplements. In 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force decided not to recommend the use of multivitamins and minerals to prevent cardiovascular disease or cancer for people without nutritional deficiencies. This recommendation from the independent group of doctors came after numerous studies failed to show health benefits from taking vitamin and mineral supplements.
- Limit Alcohol Consumption and Don’t Smoke
This one is a no-brainer. If you smoke, quite immediately. Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 40 percent of cancers diagnosed in the U.S. may have a link to tobacco use. Smoking causes about 90 percent of male and 80 percent of female lung cancer deaths. Smoking is also a major risk factor for heart disease, heart attacks and stroke. Research also shows that drinking large amounts of alcohol can significantly increase your risk of having a stroke. A recent study found that people who drink in middle age have a one-third higher risk for stroke, compared to light drinkers. Moreover, heavy drinkers are more likely to have strokes at a younger age, the study found. Overall, drinking too much can harm your health. Excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years from 2006 through 2010, according to the CDC.
- Get Enough Sleep
Getting the right amount of sleep is vital for good health. New research  indicates that sleep disturbances may lead to a buildup of the toxic protein amyloid in the brain in people at risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Other studies have shown that poor sleep quality puts people at higher risk for diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, cancer and premature death. About 59 percent of Americans get 7 or more hours of sleep at night; but about 40 percent get less than the recommended minimum of 7 hours. Nonetheless, their disrupted circadian biological clocks can contribute to a range of serious health issues. Most adults should be getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep daily, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The disruption in sleep patterns has also been linked to the national obesity epidemic.
- Manage Stress
Another factor that can lead to poor health as you age, and contribute to weight gain, is too much stress. Stress does not cause ulcers, but it can create or aggravate digestive problems for individuals with common gastrointestinal issues, especially chronic heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Stress can be a major factor in anxiety and depression. A survey of recent studies found that people who were stressed out at their jobs had an 80 percent higher risk of developing depression over time, compared to workers with lower stress. Moreover, stress can have an impact on increasing heart rate and blood flow. It can also cause the release of cholesterol and triglycerides into the blood, both of which contribute to a higher risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke. After a heart attack or stroke, people who feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed by stress should talk to their doctor.