Adopting healthy behaviors - even later in life - can help prevent, delay, and control disease. In fact, research has shown that a healthy lifestyle matters more than your genes in helping you to avoid poor health as you age. A healthy lifestyle can protect you from frailty, too. Preventing health problems also saves money. The cost of providing health care for an older American is 3 to 5 times greater than the cost for some-one younger than 65. So why wait? Take these steps to boost your physical health and self-esteem:
- Get moving! By age 75, about 1 in 2 women does not engage in any physical activity. But physical activity can help people of all ages - even those with serious health problems. For instance, muscle-building physical activity can help people with heart failure in ways that medicine cannot. Talk to your doctor about safe ways for you to become active.
- Eat healthy food. Nutrient-rich foods are vital to our health as we age. If shopping for or preparing good food is hard for you, contact your local Area Agency on Aging (the number is in the phone book) or Eldercare locator. You may be able to enjoy free or low-cost meals for older people at a community center, church, or school or have meals delivered to your home.
- Quit smoking. If you have smoked for many years, you might think it's too late for you to quit - that the damage is done. But quitting has immediate health benefits even for lifelong smokers and people with smoking-related diseases. For instance, smokers have twice the risk of dying of heart disease as nonsmokers. But this risk begins to drop after quitting. After 15 years of not smoking, past smokers' risk of heart disease is similar to those who have never smoked.
- See your doctor regularly for health screenings and vaccines. Tell your doctor about any health changes you notice. Also, tell your doctor if you feel sad, lonely, or like you don't have the energy or interest in doing things you once enjoyed.
- Be safe when drinking alcohol. The body responds differently to alcohol with age. Even a small amount can impair judgment, coordination, and reaction time. And many medicines do not mix well with alcohol. Talk to your doctor about your alcohol use and the medicines you are taking.
- Stay connected. You can protect yourself from isolation and depression by interacting with others. Get involved with a volunteer, hobby, or special interest group. Local senior centers offer social programs. Your local Area Agency on Aging can help you connect with outreach programs if you are homebound.
ALERT - Don't Be a Victim of Health Scams
Living with chronic health problems can be hard. You might be willing to try just about anything to feel better - including unproven remedies that promise a quick or painless cure. Be smart and talk to your doctor before buying a product that sounds too good to be true. Quacks - people who sell unproven remedies - target older people. Those who fall victim to their scams waste money and put their health at risk.
Normal age-related decline affects most of our body's organs and systems. How and when this happens is different for each of us. It depends on many factors, including our genes, lifestyle, and health history. "Normal" Aging [is considered:]
- Brain: Brain structure changes with age, the effects of which are unclear. Healthy older people might notice some mild changes, such as needing new information repeated or more time to learn something new.
- Heart and Arteries: The heart muscle thickens, and arteries tend to stiffen with age. This makes it harder for the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. It also becomes harder for the body to take out the oxygen from blood.
- Lungs: The amount of air the lungs can breathe in and out can decrease with age, causing shortness of breath while working hard or during brisk activities.
- Kidneys: Over time, the kidneys don't work as well at removing waste from the blood.
- Bladder: With age, the bladder cannot hold as much urine.
- Body Fat: Levels of body fat stay about the same from middle age until late life, when body weight tends to decline. Older people tend to lose both muscle and body fat. Fat also shifts from just beneath the skin to deeper organs.
- Skin: The skin thins and loses elasticity as it ages, leading to wrinkles and sags. Loss of sweat and oil glands can lead to dry and flaky skin. Spots appear on sun-damaged skin.
- Hair: Hair often grays and becomes brittle. Some women also notice hair loss or thinning.
- Muscles: Without physical activity, muscle mass declines up to 22 percent in women between age 30 and 70, affecting strength, flexibility, and balance.
- Bones: Bone mineral is removed and replaced throughout life. Beginning in the 40s, bone may be lost faster than it can be replaced. Bone loss speeds up even more after menopause. Over time, bones can weaken and become brittle.
- Eyes: In midlife, it can become harder to focus on close-up items, such as a book. From 50 on, glare tends to interfere more with vision, and seeing in low-light and detecting moving objects become more and more difficult. Seeing detail can become a challenge in the 70s.
- Ears: Higher pitched sounds become more difficult to hear with age. Understanding speech, especially if there is background noise, can be a problem, even for older adults with good hearing.
- Reproductive System: Menopause marks the end of a woman's reproductive years. She no longer has periods and she cannot become pregnant.
- Hormones: Hormones are chemical messengers that control the function of many organs and tissues. As we age, our bodies make less of certain hormones, such as estrogen and growth hormone, and more of others, such as parathyroid hormone (PHT). Estrogen and PHT affect bone health. Researchers are studying the effect of this change on aging.
- Immune System: The organs and cells of the immune system work throughout the body to protect it from infection. With age, these cells become less active, making the body less able to defend against bacteria and viruses. Researchers think that this system might play an important role in the aging process.
Adapted from The Healthy Woman: A Complete Guide for All Ages
Chapter on Healthy Aging
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health 2008
Page last modified or reviewed on January 24, 2014