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Healthy Aging Month: Things you can do to age healthfully

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By Nick Davis, MD

Scroll through your social media channels, flip through a magazine or peruse the Internet and you’ll see them—the ads for supplements, exercise programs, skin care and millions of other products all designed to help people maintain their youth. The fact is, we all age, and while we can’t stop or turn back time, there are things we can do to age healthfully. In recognition of September as Health Aging Month, here are my tips for doing all you can to keep your mind, body and spirit healthy.

Take care of your body

If ever there was a time to pay attention to how you move, what you drink and how you handle stress, it’s now. Establishing healthy lifestyle habits as early as possible in life can have long-lasting health effects, including reducing your risk of disease, improving your overall health and living longer.

  • Start with nutrition. Study after study points to the importance of a healthy diet—one that is plant-based, low in sugar and processed foods, and includes healthy fats. Additionally, as we age, our resting metabolic rate decreases which can lead to unwanted weight gain—increases risk of diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.
  • Move! Exercise at every age is important, but it’s important to maintain a regular exercise routine especially as you age. Not only does regular exercise help ward off unwanted weight, it also can improve sleep patterns, improve mental outlook and control blood pressure. In addition, exercises that help keep us mobile and flexible can reduce the risk of falls and fractures, a common concern in older patients. Walking, yoga, Tai chi, cycling, dancing, and gardening all help burn calories, build muscle, help us relax and feel good. Be sure to choose an activity that you enjoy—you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
  • Stop doing things that are bad for you. While we’ve done a great job educating society about the dangers of smoking, it is still the leading cause of preventable death, causing more than 7 million deaths per year. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about how to stop. Alcohol consumption is also linked to a number of conditions ranging from cancer to weakening your immune system to certain types of dementia. Alcohol consumption guidelines continue to decrease as we learn more and more about its damaging effects. If you drink, do so in moderation and be sure to talk with your doctor about any concerns you have.  

Stay on top of screenings

While prevention is key, studies show that early detection of diseases is important in long-term survival rates. There are numerous guidelines for physical health and cancer screenings, and unfortunately, many of them conflict with one another. (Fortunately, our membership medicine model allows for 60 or more minutes for annual wellness exams where we spend time discussing your individual needs, risks and guidelines to determine which screenings are appropriate for you.) In general, adults should discuss appropriate cancer screenings, such as colorectal, breast, cervical, prostrate and lung. Other screenings, such as cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose/Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, EKGs and coronary calcium scores are also important screenings to discuss with your doctor.

Get vaccinated!

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) constantly updates its recommendations based on solid medical research on immunizations and public health. It recommends that all adults (and adolescents) should receive some vaccines. The influenza vaccine is more important than ever as we head into our first full flu season since the emergence of Covid-19. Studies show it can reduce the risk of contracting the flu by 40 – 60%, and those who do still get sick tend to have much milder symptoms. Additionally, researchers now believe it is possible to contract both the flu and Covid-19 at that same time, increasing chances for more severe infection and complications. Older adults also will want to be vaccinated against shingles – and it’s important to use the newer Shingrix vaccine. Introduced a few years ago, it shows much improved efficacy over the older zoster live (Zostavax) vaccine – an average of 91% – and longer lasting efficacy, meaning even older age groups maintained that 91% efficacy rate. Lastly, the pneumonia vaccine. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends a routine single dose of PPSV23 for adults aged 65 years and older. They go on to share that, “shared clinical decision-making is recommended regarding administration of PCV13 to persons aged ≥65 years who do not have an immunocompromising condition, cerebrospinal fluid leak, or cochlear implant and who have not previously received PCV13. If a decision to administer PCV13 is made, PCV13 should be administered first, followed by PPSV23 at least 1 year later.”

Check your outlook

Are you a “glass is half full” kind of person? If so, research suggests you might live longer than your “half-empty” counterparts. Living during a pandemic may seem like the most difficult time to harness an optimistic outlook, but optimism isn’t about pushing aside negative feelings, it’s about recognizing hope for the future—and finding ways to celebrate the small things.

Stay connected A sense of belonging, or connectedness, is as basic a human need as food, water or shelter. From an early age, we gravitate toward others, seeking companionship, love and human connection. And now, there is a growing body of evidence that connectedness impacts our overall happiness, health and wellbeing, especially in older adults. Appreciate your relationships, reach out to loved ones, especially those who might be feeling especially isolated during this time of social distancing, and keep those connections. It just might make you – and your family—healthier.

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