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7 Health Challenges of Aging

Experts explain how to prepare for the health issues people face as they age.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

"If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself." So said Eubie Blake, the great ragtime composer and pianist who was still performing at the age of 99, the year before his death. Let's face it: old age is what lies ahead. If you're 40 or 50 or even 60, you might not give much thought to the health challenges of aging. But just as planning for future financial needs is important, so is planning for optimum health.

What should you prepare for, and how? WebMD talked to experts about the major health issues. While some diseases, such as Alzheimer's and certain cancers, continue to confound researchers, a great number can be prevented, forestalled, or minimized with a healthy lifestyle and regular health screenings.

Sharon Brangman, MD, AGSF, spokeswoman for the American Geriatrics Society, tells WebMD, "The more you do in middle age to prepare yourself for successful aging, the better."

Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome

About three-fourths of adults aged 60 and older are overweight or obese. Obesity is related to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast and colon cancer, gall bladder disease, and high blood pressure.

More than 40% of adults 60 and older have a combination of risk factors known as metabolic syndrome, which puts people at increased risk for developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. It is characterized by:

  • Waist measurement greater than 40 inches in men, 35 inches in women (apple-shaped body)
  • Triglyceride level of 150 mg/dL or higher
  • HDL "good" cholesterol level less than 40mg/dL in men, 50 mg/dL in women
  • Blood pressure of 130/85 or higher
  • Fasting glucose level of 110 mg/dL or higher

"Women in perimenopause and menopause tend to accumulate fat around the waist and hips, and men get the gut," says Brangman. "The best way to fight it is with increasing exercise, reducing alcohol intake -- because a lot of alcohol calories go right to the gut -- and reducing calorie intake. Also, increase your healthy fat intake -- omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats. And eliminate trans fats completely because there's no safe amount of those."

She also advises avoiding foods sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. The common sweetener is found in everything from sodas to breakfast cereal to low-fat yogurt. "In middle age, we should eat foods as close to naturally prepared as possible."

Arthritis

Arthritis affects nearly half the elderly population and is a leading cause of disability. "Old injuries from playing weekend warrior or high school football, and years of wearing high-heeled shoes catch up with us," says Brangman. "And arthritis in the knees is the price we pay for walking upright on two legs." The keys to prevention: avoid overuse, do steady, regular exercise rather than in weekend spurts, and stop if you feel pain. "The adage, 'no pain, no gain,' is not true."

And managing your weight is just as essential for joint health as cardiovascular health. The Framingham osteoarthritis study showed that a weight loss of just 11 pounds could reduce the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knees by 50%.

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