Many factors influence how we age, and whether it’s in a healthy way. Unfortunately, some of these (such as genetics) are out of our control. The good news? Other factors — such as exercise and physical activity, a healthy diet, going to the doctor regularly, staying up to date on vaccines, taking your medications as prescribed, and taking care of our mental health — are all within our reach.
As we get older, our immune systems tend to weaken, putting us at higher risk for certain diseases, infections, and complications. However, there are actions you can take to help manage your health as you age while maintaining independence and quality of life.
Eating well is not just about your weight. Making healthier food choices can help protect you from certain health problems as you age and may even help improve brain function. The best part? You don’t have to make it complicated! Follow an eating pattern that includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins. If you feel overwhelmed by all the choices, start small. Try making small changes like introducing fish and more leafy greens into your weekly meals. Even if you haven’t given your diet much thought before, making those changes now can still improve your well-being as an older adult. ¹
Getting the proper nutrients and vitamins from food and eating the right number of calories for your weight and exercise level can contribute to health aging. ² If you are concerned about your eating habits, talk with a doctor about ways you can make better food choices.
As people age, muscle function often declines, and you may find yourself not having the energy to do everyday activities. This makes exercise and physical activity an important foundation of healthy aging. If you are new to exercising, start simple by taking a brisk walk each day. You can also do activities like yoga that do not require any special equipment. As you become more active, you should start to feel more energized after exercising rather than exhausted. You can still exercise even if you have a health condition like arthritis, high blood pressure, or diabetes. For most older adults with chronic conditions, activities like walking, riding a bike, swimming, and weightlifting are safe with your doctor’s consent. ³
Immunizations are not just for young children. Protection from certain childhood vaccines can wear off over time or your risk factors for certain diseases may change with age. On top of that, our immune systems can have a harder time fighting off diseases we are exposed to, making vaccination more important. All adults need immunizations to help them prevent getting and spreading serious diseases that could result in poor health. In addition to the influenza and Td or Tdap vaccine that are needed at regular intervals throughout a person’s life, adults should also get: ⁴
Shingles vaccine, which protects against shingles and complications from the disease (recommended for healthy adults ages 50 and older)
Pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against pneumococcal infections and serious complications, including ear and sinus infections, pneumonia, and bloodstream infections. If you have never received a pneumococcal vaccine, the CDC recommends the new single-dose Prevnar 20 (PCV20); alternatively, you can get Vaxneuvance (PCV15) followed by a dose of Pneumovax23 (PPSV23). If you had previously received a dose of Prevnar 13 (PCV13), a dose of Pneumovax23 is needed to complete the series (recommended for all adults 65 and older, and for adults younger than 65 who have certain health conditions) ⁵
Hepatitis B vaccine, which provides protection from hepatitis B and complications including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death (recommended for all adults ages 19 and older, especially those 60 and older with risk factors for hepatitis B infection)
It is important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about staying up to date on your vaccines and which ones are recommended for you based on your risk factors.
We often develop health conditions as we age, many of which need more treatment and more medication than we used to need. If you are not used to taking medicine regularly, or if you have a change in medication dosage, number of meds, or some other alteration, it can be hard to manage your regimen and take your medications properly. Many studies have shown that following provider recommendations on medication timing, dosage, and frequency can improve quality of life and prevent death — yet about half of the 3.2 billion U.S. prescriptions dispensed each year are not taken as prescribed. For every additional dollar spent on following your med regimen, your medical costs could be decreased by about $4 to $7, depending on the disease state. ⁶ In 2015, the cost on non-adherence per person could range from about $950 to more than $52,000, depending on disease state(s). ⁷
A medication review can also address other common concerns with a med regimen. Even when medicines are necessary and even life-saving, they can come with nasty side effects and interact with other meds in your regimen. Though these interactions are not always noticeable as physical side effects, they can make the meds not as effective. Adjusting dosage or looking for an alternative medication that doesn’t have the same negative effects can make life much more pleasant. ⁸
Many medicines, especially those treating chronic conditions like diabetes or cholesterol, can lead to your body losing essential vitamins and minerals. We can help you recognize symptoms of this nutrient depletion and try to address and reverse the effect by adding in relevant vitamins and supplements.
Along with addressing side effects, drug interactions, and nutrient depletion, we can check for alternative options that may be more affordable and answer any questions you may have about your medicines or your health.
Taking care of your mental health is important throughout your life, but it’s sometimes easy to ignore or misdiagnose the signs of mental disorders as we age. Depression, for instance, may not be recognized because the main symptom is generally considered to be sadness; instead, older adults may feel numb or uninterested in activities, or they may lose sleep or their appetite. These symptoms can easily be misdiagnosed as a symptom of another illness. On top of that, physical changes like hearing or vision loss, memory loss, and mobility issues are common as we age — and all of those physical challenges can make it hard to stay connected, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Depression, loneliness, and isolation can increase your chance for chronic conditions like heart disease and memory decline. ⁹
Fortunately, many of the same things that help us physically as we age can help us mentally, too! A good diet and staying active go a long way toward keeping up our cognitive health and our overall mood as we age. If you are feeling the strain of loneliness or isolation, try scheduling calls with friends or joining a new activity or class! If you are concerned that your mental health is not what it used to be, don’t put off talking to a doctor. ⁹
⁶ Bosworth, Hayden B et al. “Medication adherence: a call for action.” American heart journal vol. 162,3 (2011): 412-24. doi:10.1016/j.ahj.2011.06.007
⁷ Cutler, Rachelle Louise et al. “Economic impact of medication non-adherence by disease groups: a systematic review.” BMJ open vol. 8,1 e016982. 21 Jan. 2018, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016982