The Better Aging Guide
Boomers can have it all while maximizing their health, but they need to start paying attention. Here’s how.
The baby boomers who altered 20th-century culture now want to maximize their personal health for 21st-century life.
Even as boomers become grandparents while caring for their own parents, they expect to continue to contribute to their communities, work past the traditional retirement age, volunteer, remain physically and mentally active, travel and remain independent in their own homes. Overall, boomers are healthier than previous generations and will live longer, much of that due to public health measures: antibiotics; cleaner, often fluoridated drinking water; vaccines that protect against terrible, often fatal, childhood diseases and a safer food supply.
HOLD ONTO THE COMMON-SENSE LESSONS
The health lessons boomers learned as children remain common sense for healthy living now. Breakfast is a powerful, healthy start to the day and helps lower risks for obesity. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat whole grains, fruits and veggies. Get plenty of exercise and fresh air. Don’t smoke.
There’s no longer any doubt as to the terrible toll tobacco chewing or cigarette/cigar smoking takes on the user as well as those living with smokers. (There’s insufficient evidence on the impact of e-cigarettes.)
While some recommend going cold turkey, there are other cessation methods available to those who still smoke but want to quit, or try quitting again. “It’s never too late to quit, and improvements to your overall health happen almost right away,” said Dr. Amy Pakyz, an associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science.
Boomers need regular exercise, at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity at an intensity that makes you breathe harder and your heart beat faster, or where you can talk with your walking partner but not sing the words to your favorite song. Get up from your desk or sofa every 30 minutes or so, stretch and walk around.
Carrying too much weight stresses knees and raises risks for diabetes. Extra pounds and poor eating habits can be difficult to shed, but “people often lose weight because they want to be there for their grandchildren,” said Pakyz.
Beyond the obvious suggestions, however, are some new tips to maximizing your health:
TAKE STOCK OF YOUR STOCK
Think about your current health status. You probably know your weight, body mass, diet, cholesterol levels and how much exercise you get.
But are you getting sufficient, good sleep?
Studies suggest that inadequate sleep raises the risk for cognitive decline, depression and anxiety, weight gain and diabetes, while sleep apnea is linked to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, including stroke. Getting more exercise, improving your diet, losing excess weight and establishing good bedtime routines will help you sleep for health.
The personal electronics that we’ve come to rely on may interfere with our ability to get a good night’s rest. An article in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December added to a small but growing body of research suggesting that night-time exposure to screens that emit blue light (smart phones, tablets, e-readers, TVs) can interfere with circadian rhythms; reduce levels of melatonin, a hormone which normally rises in the evening and plays a role in inducing sleepiness; and leave you sluggish the next morning. The authors suggest putting those devices aside before bedtime and instead turning to that old-fashioned standby, printed material: your newspapers, books and magazines.
What do you know about the health of family members?
Certain genes raise the risk for various cancers, sickle cell anemia, diabetes and some forms of mental illness. Gather what specifics you can about your parents’ and grandparents’ health and that of other blood relatives. Siblings or cousins can also be a source of helpful information. Be gentle about asking questions and recognize that what’s shared with you may not always be accurate and should be viewed as a guide.
Update your doctor on what you learned at your annual exam as you review your health records and current medications and any supplements you’re taking.
Family practitioner Dr. Cynthia Bettinger of PartnerMD in Richmond, who works with patients on lifestyle coaching, says that by now you should have a primary care doctor who can counsel you individually to help you through life changes. Discuss what health concerns you might be able to act upon and what health exams or screening tests you may need, now and in the coming years.
While chatting with older relatives, ask about their quality of life.
VCU’s Pakyz says that when she talked with family members, she learned that many considered hearing loss strongly affected their quality of life. “Boomers who sat through the notoriously loud Led Zeppelin concerts may face hearing loss.” For years, The Who’s Pete Townshend, who blames his hearing loss on the decibel levels of rock concerts in the 1970s, has been warning fellow boomers about the twin problems of hearing loss and tinnitus. Wear noise-cancelling headsets while mowing lawns or using other heavy, loud machinery for protection.
Staying mobile will also help you maintain your quality of life.
So says geriatric nurse practitioner Dr. Pam Parsons, a clinical associate professor at VCU’s School of Nursing and project director of the Richmond Health and Wellness Program at Dominion Place, an independent living community for older adults. “Whether it’s through a YMCA wellness program, walking, or biking … tai chi and yoga are great for balance.”
“Walk your dog, if you have one, as long as you’re able. Pets get people out on walks and interacting” with other pet owners, Bettinger said. “Pets lower your blood pressure.” A healthy diet is a must for mobility and to help ward off many diseases, she added.
“I tell my patients it’s time to stop messing around, you’ve got to get serious. If it’s on TV you probably don’t want to eat it.” She recommends moving toward a fresh, plant-based diet low in processed foods and animal products.
The importance of weight control and a healthy diet, which can stave off diabetes, extends beyond the physical impact on your health.
A recent study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that diabetes takes a mental toll as well. Having diabetes or pre-diabetes in your 50s, they found, raises the risk in your 70s for cognitive decline, a precursor for dementia, possibly the result from damage to small blood vessels in the brain. “The lesson is that to have a healthy brain when you’re 70, you need to eat right and exercise when you’re 50,” according to the study’s lead author, Hopkins epidemiologist Elizabeth Selvin.
PREVENTION’S ALWAYS THE EASIER WAY
Prevention through health screenings is a major component of maximizing health.
In recent years, a growing body of research has changed how frequently some tests are recommended, such as mammograms or cardio stress tests, depending on age and personal risk. Discuss the tests with your doctor along with what blood work you might need, as deficiencies in vitamin B12 or D can increase your risk of certain ailments, including depression. Keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in check.
Regular eye exams can help catch devastating eye diseases, such as glaucoma and macular degeneration, and early detection increases the chances of maintaining healthy vision. Visit your dentist regularly for teeth cleaning and to check gum health. Unhealthy gums have been linked to heart disease and heart attacks, diabetes, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, pancreatic cancer and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease. “Take care of your oral health, your teeth and your gums,” Pakyz says. “They’re expensive to repair and greatly affect the quality of life.”
Boomers who had too much fun in the sun should get a head-to-toe skin exam – skin cancer rates are rising – and all should take precautions with brimmed hats and sunscreen. Another test you shouldn’t forgo is the appointment every 10 years with the colonoscopy specialist, beginning at age 50 (45 if you’re African-American) and continuing until 75.
Have you seen Terry Bradshaw describe his experience with shingles on TV? One in three people will experience the burning, often excruciating rash caused by the varicella zoster virus (the same virus that causes chickenpox), which, even when it subsides weeks later, may linger painfully. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that about half of all shingles cases occur in those 60 or older. The vaccine can cost a couple hundred dollars but may be covered by some insurance plans and is covered by most Medicare prescription drug plans (Part D). Getting immunized against shingles, as well as against flu and pneumonia, can be a good investment in your health.
One immunization that will not only benefit you but also your grandchildren is a booster shot against whooping cough. The disease is making an unwelcomed comeback, and the vaccine seems to wear off in later years. If you’re sick with pertussis, and you’re around a newborn, or a young child not fully vaccinated, you could pass it to your grandkids, who could in turn fall seriously ill, said Dr. Mark Rausch, CEO and medical director of BetterMed Urgent Care in Midlothian.
Don’t ignore sexual health. As Boomers live longer, more vibrant lives, Pakyz says, they need to remember the same safe sex lectures they gave their children. STDs can be problematic, especially for women. In recognition of this social change, Medicare Part B now covers tests for HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and hepatitis B.
Be frank with your doctor about discussing your risk for hepatitis C. Pakyz says the “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” generation is five times more likely than previous generations to carry the blood-borne or sexually transmitted virus, which can damage or destroy the liver. If you’re considering tattoos or piercings, check with your locality and the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulations’ Board for Barbers and Cosmetology to learn whether your body artist is licensed. The treatment for a hepatitis C infection is expensive but is better than facing a transplant.
The multivitamin habit may be hard to break, but the latest research reviewing multiple, large studies shows that most people get the essential vitamins and minerals in their diet and that supplements offer little benefit to physical or cognitive health. Vitamin D’s benefits remain a somewhat open question, especially for those deficient in the vitamin, which can help protect bone health, along with weight-bearing exercise. The results of multiple studies on the suspected protection offered against heart disease by supplements of omega-3 fatty acids are inconsistent.
BECOME A HEALTH ACTION HERO
Exercise is one of the best steps toward better health.
Bear in mind that what you could fearlessly do on the court in your 20s is not necessarily the best physical activity now, however. BetterMed’s Rausch wishes his boomer patients would recognize that they are no longer immortal teens. “At this age, you don’t heal as fast as you used to,” he said. Injuries such as broken bones or muscle strains can take 3-4 weeks to heal. When injured, rethink your exercise intensity and try an alternative form of exercise to avoid further damage.
Consider, too, your cognitive, mental and social health. One of the greatest discoveries resulting from cloning research is that the adult brain is more plastic than previously thought. New experiences and learning increase connections among your brain cells and may help ward off dementia and related conditions. So far, research doesn’t support claims that computer games improve “brain health,” but crosswords work and are cheaper. “Exercise your mind,” urged Bettinger. “Look for groups online. Pick anything … you can find like-minded people to volunteer with.”
“Research proves that strong social connections decrease the likelihood of depression, strengthen immunity and lead to longevity,” says Gigi Amateau, director of community impact for health for United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg. “Want to stay healthy and improve the health of others? Volunteer. Walk across the street and get to know your neighbor. Genuinely smile when you greet people. Yep, even smiling has proven health benefits!”