Aging & Health A to Z
Lifestyle & Management
Stay Healthy and Active Longer
In addition to the screening tests and vaccinations your healthcare provider will do, there are a number of steps you can take to help prevent diseases from developing. Even if you already have an illness, these steps can help keep it from getting worse. For example, sometimes lifestyle changes like eating a healthier diet and exercising more can improve blood pressure or diabetes so that you don’t need to take as much medication.
Stay Healthy by Eliminating Risk Factors for Disease
These major steps can help you stay healthy as long as possible and stop diseases before they start.
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Smoking is still the most preventable cause of death in the United States. Quitting can increase life expectancy, lower the risk of heart disease and cancers, and improve lung function and blood circulation. Make a plan for quitting with your healthcare provider. You will have a better chance of quitting if you:
- Set a date for your last cigarette. On that date, get rid of all cigarettes and anything associated with them.
- If you smoke more than 10 cigarettes per day, talk to your healthcare provider about nicotine-replacement therapy, such as a patch, gum, nasal spray or inhaler. This may help reduce physical cravings.
- Talk to your healthcare provider about taking bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban), varenicline (Chantix), or similar medications alone or with nicotine replacement therapy.
- Schedule visits with your healthcare provider for reinforcement in quitting.
- Join support groups for people trying to quit or get counseling (in a group, individually, or by telephone).
- Avoid people or situations that tempt you to smoke.
- After quitting, switch from coffee and alcoholic drinks to juices or water. Take walks instead of coffee breaks. Chew gum or suck on hard candy if you have a craving.
- Quitting smoking is hard. Don’t be discouraged if you slip up. Most people who have successfully quit smoking have tried more than once, so don’t give up!
Physical activity is one of the most important ways to remain healthy and independent, and has been shown to help prevent and treat many diseases. Guidelines for physical activity in older adults can be found at: https://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/older-adults.
- Aerobic Activity
150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (such as brisk walking) each week.
Do aerobic activity in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and spread it throughout the week.
- Strength Training
Do muscle strengthening activities (such as lifting weights or using resistance bands or machines) involving all major muscle groups at least two days a week.
If you are not able to meet these goals because of health problems, don’t give up! It is important that you still be as physically active as your abilities and conditions allow. Other special considerations for older adults are:
- If you have fallen, or have a fear of falling, do exercises to maintain or improve balance (such as Tai-chi).
- Understand whether your medical conditions affect your ability to do some activities safely.
If you are just starting an exercise program, or feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to start, your healthcare provider can help you. Your provider can tell you if there are particular types of activity you should do or not do based on your medical conditions, and whether you need any testing of your heart before starting to exercise.
Your provider might have you work with a physical therapist, or recommend group exercise programs. Check to see if your health insurance offers a Silver Sneakers benefit. This program provides access to participating gyms, fitness centers, and classes for older adults.
The more physical activity you can do, the better, but any amount of physical activity is better than none. Physical activity doesn’t have to be strenuous. Walking, cleaning the house, and gardening are all types of exercise you can do. It is never too late to become more physically active and get the health benefits of exercise.
A healthy diet should include lots of whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as lean meat and low-fat dairy foods. Try to avoid foods that are high in salt, fat, or sugar, such as fatty meats, fried food, and processed foods.
There are many reasons some older adults struggle to eat a healthy diet. This can be because of disabilities that make it hard to go shopping or prepare food, an inability to afford healthy foods, dental problems that make it hard to chew, or lack of appetite that can be due to medications or other health problems. It is important for your healthcare provider to know if you have any of these problems, so they can find ways to help.
If you need to lose weight, your healthcare provider can help you develop reasonable goals and a plan to achieve them. Your provider may refer you to a dietician or nutritionist as well.
Although moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with some health benefits, almost 15% of older adults drink more than the recommended maximum, which is 7 drinks per week, or more than 3 drinks on one occasion. Older adults can be at increased risk for the harmful effects of alcohol for several reasons. Often older adults have changes in body composition (for example, how much of your weight is fat versus muscle). These changes can cause higher alcohol concentrations in older people compared to younger people with the same dose of alcohol. That means the same drink can affect an older person more strongly than it does a younger person.
Alcohol can interact with many medications, and can worsen a number of medical conditions including high blood pressure, dementia or other problems with memory and thinking, liver disease, and urinary incontinence. Alcohol can cause bleeding in the stomach and sleep problems. It can also affect balance, leading to falls.
Accidents are the 7th leading cause of death among people 65 years and older. Common accidents that can cause serious injury or death include falls, home hazards, and car crashes.
An unexpected fall can cause serious injury. You could require hospitalization, surgery, care in a rehabilitation facility, or even long-term nursing home care. Such injuries are often the first step in the loss of independent living.
To avoid a fall, ask your healthcare provider how you can lower your falling risk. They will:
- evaluate your balance, walking ability and speed, bone health, blood pressure, heart health, and look for other physical disabilities
- check your vision and hearing
- check your medications and suggest changes if necessary
- have you see a physical therapist to work on strength and balance
- recommend a falls-prevention or other exercise program
- send a professional to check out your home environment and suggest changes (such as installing hand rails and grab bars and bright lighting, and removing loose rugs and electrical cords)
Hazards in your home.
You can reduce your risk of accidental injury by:
- lowering the water temperature in your hot-water heater to prevent serious burns. It should be no higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit
- installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
- installing alarms and automatic shut-off features on appliances like electric kettles
- removing firearms or making sure they are safely stored
- knowing how to use any medical equipment in your home, such as oxygen.
Your home can be checked for hazards by specially trained occupational therapists or other specialists. Ask your healthcare provider if you think you need someone to check the safety of your home.
Car crashes. Car crashes are the leading cause of fatal injuries in adults up to age 75. The crash rate for older drivers is higher than for any other age group except for drivers under 25. To reduce the risk of a car crash:
- Always wear seat belts
- Have regular driving tests
- Take a refresher driving course (available through AARP or the AAA)
- Have your vision checked regularly and wear the right eyeglasses
- Don’t drink and drive
- Don’t use your cell phone or text while you are driving.
Knowing when to stop driving altogether is difficult because of the loss of independence. People with severe visual or hearing loss, dementia, seizures, and some other conditions should not drive. Many older adults also reduce their risk by not driving at night, on busy highways, or in bad weather. Your healthcare provider can help connect you with alternative forms of transportation if you need to limit or stop driving.
Unhealthy or missing teeth or diseased gums can make it difficult for you to eat normally and can lead to poor nutrition and malnourishment. Many older adults have dry mouth from medications or lack of hydration. Dry mouth can cause or worsen tooth problems. Visit your dentist at least twice a year for to have your teeth and mouth cleaned and examined. Brush and floss regularly. Your dentist may recommend rinses to help with dry mouth, or whether dentures or implants would be helpful for you.
Taking a baby aspirin (81mg) every day has been shown to reduce the risk of having a heart attack in men, and of having a stroke in women. However, even a baby aspirin can increase the risk of serious bleeding, especially in older adults. Taking aspirin to prevent heart attack or stroke is most beneficial in older adults with other risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, high blood pressure, or strong family history, and for those who are younger (under age 70). Talk with your healthcare provider about the possible benefits and risks of aspirin given your specific situation.
An annual screening by a skin doctor (dermatologist) is encouraged because of the significant increase in skin cancers in recent decades. Fair-skinned people, and people who have had a lot of sun exposure during their lifetime are at higher risk, but darker skinned people also get skin cancer. These common cancers include basal cell carcinoma (almost always curable) and melanoma (a more serious type of cancer). But do not wait for your annual visit to your dermatologist if you notice:
- Change in size, shape, color, or borders of a mole on your skin
- Change in appearance of your skin in general
- Any new unexplained area of discoloration, scaliness, or roughness
- New appearance of a nodule or pale, sunken area.
Limit the amount of time you spend in direct sunlight, and wear protective clothing and sunscreen (at least 30 SPF).