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7 Health Challenges of Aging

Experts explain how to prepare for the health issues people face as they age.

Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) continued...

A healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 80%, according to data from the Nurses' Health Study, an extensive research effort that followed more than 120,000 women aged 30 to 55 starting in 1976. Looking at data over 14 years, the researchers showed that women who were not overweight, did not smoke, consumed about one alcoholic drink per day, exercised vigorously for 30 minutes or more per day, and ate a low-fat, high-fiber diet had the lowest risk for heart disease.

"If you have high blood pressure, get it under control," says Brangman. "It reduces the rate of stroke and heart attacks. People say the medicines have bad side effects, but there are enough medications to choose from that you and your physician should be able to find one that's right for you."

And limit salt intake to control high blood pressure. "Prepared foods are loaded with salt," says Brangman. "The minute food comes out of a can or frozen food package or from a fast-food environment, you lose control of the ingredients. This is another reason to eat foods as close to naturally prepared as possible."

Vision and Hearing Loss

Age-related eye diseases -- macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma -- affect 119 million people aged 40 and older, according to the 2000 census. And that number is expected to double within the next three decades.

"Eating foods with high antioxidant content may be helpful in reducing vision loss due to macular degeneration," says Brangman. "And taking vitamin supplements for eye health may help. A lot of my geriatric patients are taking them now, which may not be as helpful as taking them when you're younger."

"It also appears that smokers are at higher risk for macular degeneration, so that's another reason to stop smoking."

Regular eye exams should include screening for glaucoma, which is called "the sneak thief of sight" for the fact that the first symptom is vision loss. The disease can be arrested, but vision lost to glaucoma cannot be restored.

The incidence of hearing loss increases with age. Twenty-nine percent of those with hearing loss are 45-65; 43% of those with hearing loss are 65 or older.

Hearing loss takes a toll on the quality of life and can lead to depression and withdrawal from social activities. Although hearing aids can help, only one out of four people use them.

High-frequency hearing loss is common in old age and made worse by a lifestyle that includes exposure to loud sounds. "The 40- and 50-year-olds who went to the rock concerts that were so loud they were pulsating in their chests are starting to pay now," says Brangman. "Another factor is working in a noisy environment, such as airports or factories."

Her advice to people at any age: don't use earbuds. "Any source of sound that fits in the ear canal, such as using Walkmans or iPods, really puts your hearing at risk. If you're going to use an iPod, don't put it directly in your ear, and lower the volume."

She says hearing aids are not an ideal solution for hearing loss. "My patients complain that they magnify the wrong sounds. They keep their $3,000 or $4,000 hearing aids in the nightstand."

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