Healthy aging? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. But for older Americans
it means exercising and eating right — plus a whole lot more, doctors say.
The Healthy Aging Campaign, a national health promotion designed to broaden
awareness of the positive aspects of aging, breaks down four keys to growing old
with style: physical fitness, social wellness, mental wellness and financial
Of those four, physical fitness is the key upon which the others turn, said
Dr. Carmel Dyer, associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine
in Houston, and director of the Harris County Hospital District Geriatrics
“The fountain of youth truly is exercise,” Dyer said.
Exercise increases your muscle mass and flexibility, making it less likely
you’ll fall and suffer a fracture, Dyer said. It also helps you metabolize blood
sugar better, decreasing your risk of diabetes. And it keeps your blood vessels
open and dilated, which reduces your blood pressure, she said.
Dyer recommends exercising for at least 30 minutes three times a week, and
adding days as your fitness increases.
Good nutrition, including a diet low in saturated fats and containing five or
more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, also is crucial to good health.
And if you’re a smoker, quit — it’s never too late.
Another part of good health is making sure you get regular checkups, said Dr.
Michael Fleming, a Shreveport, La., physician and board chairman of the American
Academy of Family Physicians.
“It’s important for everyone to have a personal physician you can have a
relationship with, that knows you and your family and your risk factors,”
Fleming said, adding that everyone should have a “coordinator of your care.”
Dyer agreed, adding that people should proactively plan for health screenings
for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis — to name a few
— that could both prolong life and make it more enjoyable.
“Why not see your doctor once a year and get the proper preventative
treatment?” Dyer said. “It puts you more in control of your health.”
Seniors also should try to avoid unnecessary medications, Dyer said, noting
that people taking eight drugs — even vitamins — have a 100 percent chance of
suffering from some sort of drug interaction.
“I would have everyone ask their doctor for the reason for each medication,
and what they could do in place of the drugs,” she said, noting that physical
activity or a healthy diet could supplant the need for some prescription
Having good health and being physically fit also can help keep your mind
clear and healthy, both Dyer and Fleming said.
Just being active can go a long way to improving one’s attitude as you grow
older, Fleming said. “If you don’t believe you can age actively, I’m pretty sure
you can’t,” he said.
Seniors also should exercise their minds by traveling, learning new skills,
reading, researching new interests or developing a hobby.
A healthy social life also can help seniors stay mentally sharp, Dyer
“Any type of activity is important because it keeps you more alert,” she
said. “When your social network starts to shrink, it becomes easy to get
depressed. It’s easier for people to take advantage of you. You may not eat well
because you don’t like eating alone.”
Many seniors stay socially active by contributing time to their communities
through local volunteer groups, religious organizations or civic groups. They
also can attend classes at local senior centers or community colleges.
Experts also recommend staying in close contact with friends and family,
writing or calling someone every day to be in touch.
Finally, people should take care to make sure they are financially secure as
they enter their senior years, Dyer said.
Long before you near retirement, you should save at least 10 percent of your
income and invest in savings plans that compound interest. And people on the
verge of retirement should establish financial goals and prepare a budget for
their post-employment years.
“People need to prepare for a stable financial future,” Dyer said. “And make
sure your money is in a safe place with responsible people. You want to be sure
your funds are in trustworthy hands.”
To learn more, visit the Healthy Aging
SOURCES: Carmel Dyer, M.D., associate professor of medicine, Baylor
College of Medicine in Houston, and director of the Harris County Hospital
District Geriatrics Program; Michael Fleming, M.D., physician, Shreveport, La.,
and board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians
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