Top 5 Steps to Healthy Aging

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September 24, 2014


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Baby boomers — the post-World War II generation born between 1946 and 1964 — account for about 26 percent of the U.S. population. About 250,000 baby boomers turn 65 every month. And that staggering fact is presenting both challenges and opportunities for the healthcare industry.

Primary care physicians are increasingly providing an aging population with “wellness and prevention” guidelines so that these patients can remain engaged in active and productive lives decades past retirement. But many potential patients near or past retirement age don’t even show up for regular doctor visits.

There has been a lot of progress in cancer detection and early intervention of heart disease, but large segments of the aging population are still neglecting “preventive services” that include routine cancer screenings and even basic checkups, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Only 25 percent of adults aged 50 to 64 years — and less than 50 percent of adults aged 65 years or older — are up to date on their health screenings, the CDC says. These services include screenings for chronic conditions, immunizations for diseases such as influenza and pneumonia, and counseling about personal health behaviors, the agency says.

The financial crisis and recession of 2008-2009 forced many people to cut back on doctor checkups or screenings with high co-pays, as many people lost wages or saw wages diminish, said Mark Caruso, M.D., a primary care physician at Baptist Health Medical Group.

However, preventive care is waging a comeback, Dr. Caruso said.

“We’ve seen people of all ages coming in more regularly for routine physicals,” he said. “Some insurance carriers are waving co-pays, and people are seeing their primary at least once a year. But to think that the message of wellness and prevention is getting through to only one person in four (for ages 50 to 64 years) is troubling.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) provides a complete list of all recommended screenings.

Here are the top 5 steps that all adults can take toward healthy aging:

1. Get Regular Health Screenings/Checkups:
The USPSTF issues dozens of recommended screenings for U.S. adults of all ages, with many of the guidelines targeting men and women over the age of 50.  The recommendations cover the well-known guidelines for heart disease risk factors (blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar), and colorectal and breast cancer screenings, but there are many other screenings that don’t get as much publicity. All adults are encouraged to consult with their primary care physicians about the proper health screenings, particularly men and women over the age of 50. However, many younger adults may fall into high-risk categories as well because of family histories or other factors. “Many people hear bad things about screenings, such as colonoscopies. Our job is to reassure them,” Dr. Caruso said.

2. Exercise/Increase Mobility:
One study after another has extolled the benefits of regular exercise or a lifestyle that is more active than sedentary.  But studies also have found that, for the most part, when older people lose their mobility or ability to do daily things on their own, it happens because they’re not active. Even mild-to-moderate exercise can benefit older adults afflicted with arthritis and other chronic conditions that restrict mobility. Many studies have found that staying physically active can help prevent or delay many diseases and disabilities.  “I champion exercise for everyone on a daily basis,”  Dr. Caruso said. “I tell patients to start out at 3 to 4 days a week. I ask people who are retired: Do you have 20 minutes a day for brisk walking? The CDC offers these physical activity guidelines for older adults.

3. Follow Nutritional Guidelines:
Healthier living through proper eating has been chronicled in numerous studies that promote eating the right balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein sources. Staying away from added sugars and too much sodium, for example, can help control or prevent heart disease factors such as diabetes or high blood pressure. As adults get older, proper nutrition becomes even more vital for more robust living. Here’s a nutrition guide for older adults from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

4. Manage Chronic Conditions:
Aging often comes with the challenges of treating and living with chronic diseases, including arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and  painful neuroskeletal conditions that affect movement and quality of life. Managing these conditions is critical to extend an active lifestyle.  Treatments often include medications that need monitoring for side effects and potentially harmful interactions with each other. Older adults should consult with their doctors about lifestyle modifications as well, including regular exercise and nutrition to keep chronic conditions from interfering with quality of life.

5. Keep Busy With Low Stress:
Older adults who are more engaged in regular activities, whether volunteering or paid work, tend to have greater overall well-being, especially when it come mental health, according to many studies. Many older adults continue working past traditional retirement age, either out of necessity or because they want to. The important aspect of “keeping busy” is not to let stress affect your health. Feeling emotional or nervous, or having trouble sleeping and eating are all normal reactions to stress. As you get older, sleeping patterns can become disrupted as a natural consequence of aging. Living with less stress can help overcome many chronic health conditions, including heart disease.

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