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50+: Live Better, Longer

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7 Health Challenges of Aging

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

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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