- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

As we grow older, each decade brings varied health challenges, and taking steps to address health risks or concerns is a vital part of aging well. While being diligent about diet, exercise and proper medical care is crucial, doctors, gerontologists and other specialists say a positive mental outlook and strong support network are just as important to enjoying good health in the senior years.
Registered nurse Ann O'Neil, a certified nurse specialist with Care Options for the Elderly and Disabled in Falls Church, stresses preventive action.
"We all need to be concerned with our own bodies and to do the things we need to do to take care of ourselves," she says.
Ms. O'Neil points out that adults in their 50s should get regular physical examinations and furnish their doctors with complete medical histories, alerting them to specific health risks.
In addition, health care providers say, adults in this age group should have an annual exam to screen for colorectal cancer, an annual stool blood test and a sigmoidoscopy every five years. Men should have an annual exam to screen for prostate cancer, and women should continue to have an annual breast exam and mammogram.
A regular exercise program can help prevent future problems with flexibility, balance and strength. Also, of course, diet is important in helping prevent cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Many conditions, such as diabetes, can be controlled by proper diet. Blood sugar should be tested every three years, and blood pressure should be tested every two years, health care workers say.
Individuals in their 50s also should strive to exercise their minds and reduce the stress in their lives, promoting an upbeat attitude.
"Learn something new keep the brain exercised," Ms. O'Neil advises. "Whether it's taking up salsa dancing or playing bridge, cultivating new interests can help keep the mind alert and can provide a much-needed outlet for stress."
Dr. Samuel Durso at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says it also is important to consider bone health in the 50s to combat osteoporosis. Men and women must ensure they are getting enough calcium, and women may need a bone-density screening, depending on their family histories, he says.
Dr. Durso agrees that mental health is a fundamental issue for men and women in their 50s. This commonly is a time to experience the "blues," as parents see their children leaving home and start to think about their own futures, retirement and care options. Planning ahead and building a strong support network instead of waiting until a health crisis occurs can help provide a sense of well-being, which contributes to optimum health.
For people in their 60s, Dr. Durso says regular immunizations are critical, particularly for the flu and pneumonia, as the immune system begins to weaken. People in this age group also may begin to experience a decline in vision and hearing. Individuals between the ages of 50 and 60 should have their vision tested every two to four years, and after age 65 should have it tested every one to two years. Hearing should be tested frequently, depending again on individual risk factors.
Beth Scovill, a registered nurse with Senior Connections Inc. of Owings Mills, Md., says a common issue she encounters in working with individuals in their 60s is the mismanagement of medication, which can lead to additional health problems.
"They feel better, so they think they don't need it or, since they feel better, they take a double dose, or they may forget they even took it," she says.
Ms. Scovill says she also has worked with many elderly persons who are hospitalized, sent home and then quickly readmitted because they didn't receive the education and guidance they needed to take care of themselves. For example, they may need to know how to monitor their blood pressure or how to set up an insulin syringe. Ms. Scovill encourages individuals to seek support in addressing their health challenges.
"Don't be afraid to hire the necessary help you need," she says.
People in their 70s and 80s may encounter new health challenges, such as problems with balance, strength and arthritis, and the senses of taste, smell and touch may decline. Dementia or Alzheimer's disease may occur during this time frame.
Joan Richardson, a registered nurse and president of Advanced Care Management Inc. in Reston, explains that during these decades, functional impairments caused by the effect of a chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease or arthritis can become more debilitating. These impairments can affect an individual's ability to complete daily tasks, such as driving, shopping and preparing meals, which is why a strong support system is necessary.
"Those who are at the most risk are those who have no network," she says. "When you are this age, you need people."
No matter what your age during the second half of life, cultivating a positive outlook on life and engaging in creative pursuits can boost the immune system and help you stay healthier and more mentally alert, according to Dr. Gene Cohen, the first director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University.
Dr. Cohen recently published a book, "The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life." In his book, Dr. Cohen elaborates on his research, which shows that aging Americans can lead independent and productive lives much longer than previously expected.

More information

On line
The American Geriatrics Society's site (www.americangeriatrics.org) can be used to order AGS publications, link to other health-related sites and learn about the latest medical news on aging and health. The AGS, comprising more than 6,000 health care professionals, is dedicated to improving the health and quality of life of older Americans.
The Novartis Foundation for Gerontology sponsors a site (www.healthandage.com) that is an educational Web center promoting interaction between the public and health care professionals. It includes a learning center with the latest publications in geriatrics, a chat room, a drug information center and a help center that allows users to ask questions of the medical experts.
AARP's site (www.aarp.org) offers information on dealing with the transitions and challenges of aging, including features on ways to boost your health and connections for independent living.
The membership directory of Geriatric Care Management (www.gemonline.org/gemdir.html) provides a listing of local members of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, who offer geriatric care.

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