Let’s face it. We’re all getting older. And while health issues concern us all, they are even more important to today’s ever-growing geriatric population. For seniors, the best way to maintain health is through a focus on basic nutrition and fitness, doctors say.
According to Dr. Richard
Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, people are living longer than ever before. Life expectancy has almost doubled in the past 100 years, and today about 35 million Americans are age 65 and older.
The reason for this increased life span, says Dr. Eric Tangalos, professor of medicine and chairman of community internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic, is we have survived childbirth and childhood infections, have antibiotics and immunizations and have good nutrition.
He advises all seniors to maintain a healthy lifestyle by doing the same things he suggests for younger people: “Avoid risky behavior, wear seat belts, eat and drink in moderation, exercise regularly, watch blood pressure and don’t smoke.
“We know that even after age 70, correcting high blood pressure and controlling cholesterol makes a difference for strokes and heart attacks,” Dr. Tangalos says. “We also know that no matter what the age, when you stop smoking, you will eventually reduce your risk for lung cancer.”
Basic exercise and good nutrition have specific positive effects on cardiovascular fitness, Dr. Tangalos says.
“Controlling your weight protects your joints and keeps you more active,” he says.
According to the AARP, good nutrition not only has positive effects on health, but is key to longevity. It has been proved to lower a person’s risk for many chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke, some types of cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis. The group suggests considering the following guidelines, developed by the federal government to help Americans choose diets that meet nutrient requirements, promote health, support active lives and reduce risk of chronic disease:
Eat a variety of foods. Remember to choose the recommended number of daily servings from each group in the food pyramid.
Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends that adults take in less than 30 percent of calories from fat and less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily.
Choose a diet with plenty of grain products, vegetables and fruits. Those foods offer a lot of minerals, vitamins and fiber with fewer calories.
Choose a diet moderate in sugars. Foods high in sugars often take the place of more healthy foods.
Choose a diet moderate in salt and sodium. A little sodium is essential in the diet, but too much may raise blood pressure in some people.
If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Alcohol, like sweets, can take the place of healthy food in the diet.
Don’t forget to drink six to eight glasses of water each day. As the body ages, it holds less water, and some drugs cause water loss. Without the proper amount of water, you may get lightheaded, stress your heart and even lose blood pressure.
Dr. Kenneth Brummel-Smith, president-elect of the American Geriatric Society and chairman of the Providence Center on Aging, concurs with the concept that basic nutrition and fitness can have beneficial results, even if seniors start paying attention to health later in life.
“Many studies have shown benefits from starting a physical activity program regardless of age,” Dr. Brummel-Smith says.
“Older people are surprisingly resilient. For instance, stopping smoking after age 70 still confers health benefits lower rates of upper respiratory infections, fewer bed days, better exercise tolerance and even reduced cancer risk. Regular physical activity may help people stop smoking, decrease depression, decrease the need for diabetic medication, increase brain blood flow and mental abilities as well as help with weight control.”
In some cases, Dr. Brummel-Smith says, nutritional changes can be even more beneficial in old age than in one’s youth because the effects can be felt right away.
“A recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society showed that weight loss and exercise were more effective in controlling the symptoms of arthritis than medications alone,” he says.
Dr. Brummel-Smith says a recent study of centenarians showed they had seven habits in common: exercising regularly, sleeping seven hours a night, maintaining a moderate weight, not snacking, eating regularly, not smoking and not using excessive alcohol.
Of all of the simple and inexpensive lifestyle changes seniors can make to improve their health and well-being, Dr. Brummel-Smith says, the most important is to exercise regularly.
“Any physical activity will do, so you don’t have to be just a jogger. The exercise should be regular, though, at least three times a week for at least 20 minutes.”
Certain exercises are especially good for older folks, Dr. Brummel-Smith says.
“Tai chi improves balance and coordination, walking is beneficial in many ways, water aerobics is good for people with arthritis and balance problems, and stationary bicycles are good for people who can’t walk due to arthritis.”
Tai chi not only enhances joint mobility and improves balance, says Dr. Tangalos, but it also increases strength, a major component to sustained health for seniors.
www.aarp.org AARP, the nation’s leading organization for people 50 and older, offers a site featuring an extensive health and wellness section, with health discussion groups, information on health insurance and care giving, and tips on choosing an exercise video.
www.nih.gov The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the 25 institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health, leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging and extend the healthy, active years of life.
www.americangeriatrics.org The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) is the premier professional organization of health care providers dedicated to improving the health and well-being of all older adults.
www.about.com About.Com features senior health sections and includes a health library, local health resource listings, food and fitness sections and tips on choosing a doctor.
www.ama-assn.org The American Medical Association provides handy on-line forms so you can create and update a detailed record of your medical past and family history. Those records will help you and your doctors understand your risks and take steps to protect your health and that of your family.
www.nchc.org The site for the National Coalition on Health Care provides information on issues that affect health care in the United States. It describes challenges that face the health care system, including securing health insurance for all, improving the quality of care, containing costs, making financing equitable and simplifying administration.