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Healthy Aging

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Healthy Aging

Overview

What is healthy aging?

Healthy aging means staying well as you get older. How you will feel as you age depends on the type of health problems that run in your family. But it also depends on the choices you make.

If your family members have diseases or ongoing (chronic) health problems like high blood pressure or diabetes, then your chances of having those problems increase. But just because your risk is higher, it doesn't mean you will have the same problems.

In fact, the choices you make can help reduce your chances of getting illnesses that run in your family. And even if you do get an illness, choosing to be active, to eat healthy foods, and to learn how to deal with stress can slow down or even prevent problems that often come with getting older.

What kinds of changes should you expect as you get older?

Changes as you get older are usually gradual.

Certain physical changes are common. Your metabolism slows over time. This means that your body needs less food energy than before. How much and how well you sleep will likely change. Most people start to need reading glasses around age 40, and many have some hearing loss later in life. Starting in your 50s, bone aging increases. Also starting around age 50, you may notice changes in sexual function. It's normal to have a slower sexual response.

Most vital organs gradually become less efficient with age. The kidneys are less able to keep enough water in your body. And the heart can start to show signs of wear and tear. So as you get older, it's important to be physically active, drink plenty of water, and choose healthy foods. Doing these things will help your body work well for a longer period of time.

What do you need to do to feel your best as you age?

Being active is one of the most important things you can do for your health at any age. Physical activity keeps your body strong, and it helps with how you feel. It can be anything from walking to gardening to working out at the gym. The important thing is to be active almost every day.

Your mental and emotional health is also important. Protect or improve your emotional health by connecting with friends, family, and the community. Try to keep stress at a minimum.

Keep your brain active and challenged to protect or improve your memory and mental sharpness. Learn or do something new and different. Attend an educational workshop, or learn a new card game.

Depression can be a serious problem for older adults. If you think you may be depressed, seek help.

Other good health habits can help you stay at your best:

  • Eat healthy foods. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and low-fat dairy foods. Avoid salty foods and foods with a lot of fat in them.
  • If you smoke, try to quit.

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.

Normal Aging

As your body ages, you can expect gradual changes, at your body's own pace. How your body ages depends in part on your family (genetic) patterns of aging. But your lifestyle choices have a more powerful impact on how well your body ages. The good news is that you can control your lifestyle choices.

Some of the following changes may apply to you. Others may not. A healthy lifestyle may slow many of these normal effects of aging.

Skin.

With age, the skin gets less elastic and more lined and wrinkled. Fingernail growth also slows. The oil glands gradually produce less oil, making the skin drier than before. You can slow skin aging by using moisturizer and sunscreen.

Hair.

It's normal for hair to gradually thin on the scalp, pubic area, and armpits. As hair pigment cells decline in number, you get more gray hair.

Height.

By age 80, it's common to have lost as much as 2 in. (5 cm) in height. This is often related to normal changes in posture and compression of joints, spinal bones, and spinal discs.

Hearing.

Over time, changes in the ear make high-frequency sounds harder to hear. Changes in tone and speech are less clear. These changes tend to speed up after age 55.

Vision.

Most people in their 40s start to need reading glasses as the lenses in the eyes become less flexible. (This is called presbyopia.) It's also normal for night vision and visual sharpness to decline. Also in the later years, glare increasingly interferes with clear vision. Vision changes can affect your ability to drive safely.

Sleep.

Changes in sleep and circadian rhythm occur as you age. You will probably sleep less at night. And you may not sleep as deeply as you did when you were younger. It's more likely that you'll wake up during the night or wake up earlier in the morning.

Bones.

Throughout adulthood, men and women gradually lose some of the mineral content in their bones. The bones get less dense and strong. Getting enough calcium and doing regular, weight-bearing exercise are a few of the ways to slow bone loss and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

Metabolism and body composition.

Over time, the body typically needs less energy, and your metabolism slows. Hormone changes in the aging body cause a shift to more body fat and less muscle mass. The best way to manage these changes is to take in fewer calories while you keep up or increase your physical activity.

Brain and nervous system.

Starting in the third decade of life, the brain's weight, the size of its nerve network, and its blood flow decrease. But the brain adapts to these changes, growing new patterns of nerve endings. Memory changes are a normal part of the aging process. It's common to have less recall of recent memories and to be slower to remember names and details.

Heart and blood circulation.

The heart naturally becomes less efficient as it ages. Your heart has to work a little harder during activity than it did in the past. This makes the heart muscle a little larger. You'll notice a slow decline in your energy or endurance from one decade to the next.

Lungs.

In inactive people, the lungs don't work as well over time, so they supply the body with less oxygen. Regular physical activity plays a key role in keeping your lungs strong.

Kidneys.

With advancing age, the kidneys get smaller and don't work as well. They don't clear wastes and some medicines from the blood as quickly. And they don't help the body handle dehydration as well as in the past. This makes it more and more important to reduce the toxins, alcohol, and unneeded medicine that you take in, and to drink plenty of water.

Urinary incontinence.

Age-related changes in the urinary system, being less mobile, and some medicine side effects can all lead to urinary incontinence. But this doesn't have to be part of normal aging. Talk to your doctor if urinary incontinence is affecting you.

Sexual function.

Men and women produce lower levels of hormones starting in their 50s. Men produce less sperm, and their sexual response time slows. Women stop ovulating. They have a number of menopausal changes linked to lower estrogen production.

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Physical Activity

Physical activity keeps your body strong, and it helps with how you feel. Being active gives you more energy, improves your mood, and helps keep your mind sharp. It can also help reduce your risk of getting certain diseases, such as coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes.

Kinds of activity that can help you stay healthy

Being more active will make your daily activities easier. Physical activity includes planned exercise and things you do in daily life. There are four types of activity:

Aerobic.

Doing aerobic activity makes your heart and lungs strong.

  • Includes walking, dancing, and gardening.
  • Aim for at least 2½ hours spread throughout the week.
  • It improves your energy and can help you sleep better.
Muscle-strengthening.

This type of activity can help maintain muscle and strengthen bones.

  • Includes climbing stairs, using resistance bands, and lifting or carrying heavy loads.
  • Aim for at least twice a week.
  • It can help protect the knees and other joints.
Stretching.

Stretching gives you better range of motion in joints and muscles.

  • Includes upper arm stretches, calf stretches, and gentle yoga.
  • Aim for at least twice a week, preferably after your muscles are warmed up from other activities.
  • It can help you function better in daily life.
Balancing.

This helps you stay coordinated and have good posture.

  • Includes heel-to-toe walking, tai chi, and certain types of yoga.
  • Aim for at least 3 days a week.
  • It can reduce your risk of falling.

Even if you have a hard time meeting the recommendations, it's better to be more active than less active. All activity done in each category counts toward your weekly total. You'd be surprised how daily things like carrying groceries, keeping up with grandchildren, and taking the stairs can add up.

Getting started with being active

It's never too late to start getting active. Being fit is important for everyone. You can benefit from physical activity even if you already have conditions such as arthritis or heart disease. Being more active will help you feel better. And it may even help you live longer.

If you haven't been active for a long time, you may have no idea where to start. The important thing is to take that first step—and make that first step a small one.

  • Talk with your doctor if you're worried about how exercise might affect your health.

    If you're already active, ask your doctor if there is anything you should change to stay safe as your body and health change.

  • Start slow.

    If you have been inactive for years, start with about 5 to 10 minutes of activity at a time. Then increase your time as you get more comfortable with the activity.

  • Try to improve only a little bit at a time.

    Pick one area for improvement first. Set your personal goal in that area. Meet that goal before you try another area.

  • Don't overdo it!

    Some minor soreness or stiffness is to be expected at first. But pain is a warning sign to stop.

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Emotional and Mental Wellness

As you get older, there are some things you can do to protect or improve your memory and keep your mind sharp.

  • Keep your brain active and challenged.

    Read. Learn a new musical instrument or language. Do crossword puzzles. Or play games of strategy with others. Just like an active body, an active brain continues to develop and thrive. But an inactive brain loses its power over time.

  • Make it easy to remember.
    • Write down dates, names, and other important information that you easily forget.
    • Use routine and repetition. For example, keep daily items such as keys and eyeglasses in a specific place. And when you meet someone new, picture that person while you repeat his or her name out loud to others or to yourself several times to commit it to memory. (No matter what your age, having too much on your mind can keep you from remembering new information. And as you age, it's normal to take longer to retrieve new information from your memory bank.)
  • Prevent depression.

    Depression is a common but treatable cause of cognitive decline in older people. If you think you may be depressed, seek help. Antidepressant medicine and counseling can help treat depression. If you find that a physical condition or disability is making your depressed mood worse, get the medical treatment you need.

    To help keep from getting depressed:

    • Be active. While physical activity produces chemicals in the body that promote emotional well-being, being inactive can make depression, anxiety, and stress worse.
    • Avoid the depressant effect of alcohol and sedative use.
    • Eat healthy meals and snacks.
    • Include meaningful activity in your daily life, such as learning, creating, working, and volunteering.
    • Be social. Stay in touch with friends, family, and your community. Whether healthy or ill, people who feel connected to others are more likely to thrive than those who are socially isolated.
  • Don't smoke.

    Cigarette smoking may speed mental decline.

Managing stress

Here are some ways to relieve stress.

  • Be active. Exercise and activity can help reduce stress. Walking is a great way to get started.
  • Do something you enjoy, like a favorite hobby or listening to music.
  • Meditate. This can help you relax by focusing more on the present moment.
  • Do guided imagery. Imagine yourself in any setting that helps you feel calm. You can use online videos, books, or a teacher to guide you.
  • Express your feelings. Talk with supportive friends or family, a counselor, or a faith leader about your feelings. Avoid discussing your feelings with people who make you feel worse. Try writing about how you feel. It may help you to see what's causing stress so you can find ways to cope.

Spiritual wellness

There is some research that links spiritual wellness with physical well-being.footnote 1 Spiritual wellness can bring comfort and lend strength for handling life's challenges. Some people find that tending to the spirit seems to be as healing as medicine itself.

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Sexual Wellness

Besides physical changes, cultural and psychological factors can affect sexuality in later years. For example, in today's culture, sexuality is often tied to youthful looks and vigor. But there is no age limit for enjoying sex.

Physical and emotional needs change with time and circumstance. Intimacy and sexuality may or may not be important to you. You can live a fulfilling life with or without sex.

Normal sexual changes in males

Most physical changes are the result of decreasing testosterone levels. These changes affect energy, strength, muscle and fat mass, and bone density. They can also affect sexual function.

  • Your sexual response starts to slow down after age 50. But your sex drive is more likely to be affected by your health and attitude about sex and intimacy than by your age.
  • It may take longer to get an erection. Also, more time needs to pass between erections.
  • Erections will be less firm. But if you have good blood flow to your penis, you should be able to have erections that are firm enough for sexual intercourse throughout your life.
  • As you age, you may be able to delay ejaculation for a longer time.

Normal sexual changes in females

Most physical changes take place after menopause. They're the result of decreased estrogen levels. Taking hormone therapy can reduce these changes.

  • It may take longer to become sexually excited.
  • The walls of the vagina get thinner and drier. They're more easily irritated during sexual intercourse.
  • Orgasms may be somewhat shorter than they used to be. The contractions felt during orgasm can be less intense.

Not everyone has these problems. If you do have problems and they bother you, talk with your doctor about treatment options.

Staying sexually active as you get older

Try these tips to keep sexual activity a part of your life as you get older.

  • Use more foreplay and direct contact with sexual organs.

    This can enhance sexual response.

  • Set the mood.

    Try setting the mood with candlelight or soft music. Fantasy and imagination may help arouse some people.

  • Use a lubricant to reduce vaginal dryness or irritation.

    Lubricants can be water-, silicone-, or oil-based. Ask your doctor about what kind may be a better option for you. Do not use petroleum jelly. A doctor can also prescribe a vaginal cream containing estrogen, which will help reverse the changes in the vaginal tissues.

  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.

    Larger amounts of alcohol may decrease your sexual performance.

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Getting the Nutrition You Need

Good nutrition is important at any age. But it is especially important for older adults. Eating a healthy diet helps keep your body strong. And it can help lower your risk for disease.

As you get older, your body needs more of certain nutrients. These include vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D. But it may be harder for you to get these and other important nutrients. This could be for many reasons. You may not feel as hungry as you used to. Or you could have problems with your teeth or mouth that make it hard to chew. Or you may not enjoy planning and preparing meals, especially if you live alone.

Talk with your doctor if you want help getting the most nutrition from what you eat. The doctor may have you work with a dietitian to help you plan meals.

Changing nutritional needs

As you get older, your nutritional needs change. For example:

  • Your body's daily energy needs slowly decrease. So you need fewer calories a day than when you were younger. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you figure out how many calories you need a day.
  • Natural hormone changes make your body likely to store more body fat (especially around your middle) and less muscle. Eating a healthy, balanced diet and limiting your intake of saturated fat, along with being more active and strengthening your muscles, can help you stay at a healthy weight. (Muscle cells are the major calorie burners in your body.)
  • Your bones lose mineral content faster than before. This is most likely if you are a postmenopausal woman. That's because having less estrogen increases bone loss. So you need to have calcium and vitamin D in your diet to help prevent osteoporosis. Your doctor may advise you to take a calcium and vitamin D supplement.
  • Plaque buildup can occur on the inside of the arteries that supply blood to the heart and brain. This is called atherosclerosis. You can help slow this plaque buildup by eating heart-healthy foods. These include lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A healthy diet can help lower cholesterol and high blood pressure. It can also help prevent heart disease and stroke.

Help for managing underweight or poor nutrition

People who are underweight or frail have low reserves for bouncing back after an illness or injury. In the later years, this can lead to permanent ill health or disability.

If you have trouble keeping your weight up, you'll need to take special measures to build your weight, energy, and resilience. Every day, follow your doctor's advice and the steps below.

  • Eat three meals plus three snacks each day.

    Don't skip or miss meals.

  • Choose higher-calorie foods from each food group.

    For example, choose whole milk instead of skim milk. But try to limit your overall saturated fat intake. High cholesterol can affect anyone.

  • Eat the highest-calorie foods in a meal first.
  • Use liquid supplements, such as Ensure or Boost, between meals.

If you are having trouble getting the food you need because of transportation, financial, or health problems, ask your doctor about local meal programs. Most communities have Meals on Wheels programs that can deliver food to your door. And there are meals at churches and community centers that can nourish your needs for both food and social time.

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Getting the Medical Care You Need

Good health care doesn't just happen. You have to do your part. Taking an active role in your health care is the best way to make sure you get great care.

  • Be an informed health care consumer.

    When you are concerned about a medical condition:

    • Read as much as you can about it and its possible treatments.
    • Make a list of your questions, and talk to your doctor about them.
    • Explore all treatment options before you decide how to treat a problem.
    • Think about getting a second opinion if you're considering a surgery, a medicine with dangerous side effects, or experimental treatment.
  • Be your own best health advocate.

    Whenever you have a medical appointment:

    • Bring your health and medicine history with you. And bring a list of questions you want answered during your appointment.
    • Make sure you understand your doctor's key points about your health and any possible tests and treatments.
    • You can bring along a friend or family member to support you and help you remember key information for later on. This can be especially useful when you're under a lot of physical or mental stress.
  • Get organized.

    Create a personal medical information file. This includes an ongoing record of your:

    • Health professionals' names and numbers.
    • Medicines, herbal supplements, and vitamins. For each, include the dosage, who prescribed it and why, and any side effects you've had.
    • Known allergies to medicines, foods, or insects. Include the type of allergic reaction.
    • Vaccine record.
    • Symptoms, health problems, and treatments. For each, jot down dates and any details that you might easily forget.
    • Exam and test results.
    • Emergency medical information, such as pacemaker use or chronic disease diagnosis.
    • Insurance policy and payment receipts.
  • Write an advance directive.

    Along with putting your advance directive in writing, be sure to clearly communicate your choices to all family members who might be involved in your health care.

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References

Citations

  1. Swinton J (2012). Healthcare spirituality: A question of knowledge. In M Cobb et al., eds., Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare, pp. 99–104. New York: Oxford University Press.

Credits

Current as of: September 25, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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