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Answers to 10 Questions About Healthy Aging

  • Is memory loss always a part of aging? How much loss is considered normal?
  • Answer:

    Some memory loss does occur as we age. Not only do we lose brain cells linked to memory, we also manufacture less of the chemicals these cells need to function properly. The aging brain also stores information in a slightly different way, making recollection of recent events harder. So, as we age, it's not unusual to find ourselves at a loss for names or unable to remember where we put our car keys. That's normal. 

    If, however, you can't remember how to do simple things you did before, or if, for example, you can't follow directions, get easily lost in your neighborhood, or can't follow a recipe, you may have a more serious type of memory loss, usually indicative of a health concern and not the result of aging.

    Moreover, simple, age-related memory loss usually doesn't worsen over time. Health-related memory loss, such as from dementia or Alzheimer's disease, does increase over a period of months to years.

  • How much exercise do people over 50 really need?
  • Answer:

    The simple answer is the more you can do, the better. Although guidelines like 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day are fine for younger adults, for many older people, meeting these demands may not be realistic. 

    For this reason, experts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) advise working with your doctor to develop exercise guidelines based on your personal health and fitness parameters. Moreover, remember that it's never too late to start! The NIH reports that in one study, folks 80 years and older went from being dependent on a walker to walking with a cane in less than three months, just by doing simple muscle-toning exercises. 

    That said, no matter how strong you feel, once you're past age 50 it's necessary to talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program.

  • Is osteoarthritis a part of aging, and is there a way to reduce risks, even after age 50?
  • Answer:

    Osteoarthritis, a breakdown of the cartilage between our joints, affects some 21 million Americans, mostly in the knees, hips, hands, and the neck. Symptoms, including pain and stiffness, usually begin after age 40 and become more apparent as we age. 

    Aging definitely increases the likelihood of getting osteoarthritis, and if we live long enough, almost everyone develops osteoarthritis to some degree. Heredity and nutrition can also play a role. However, the degree to which you are affected is more often determined by how much you abused your joints in your younger years, particularly if you had a bone or joint injury. 

    Your weight also makes a big difference, particularly for osteoarthritis of the hips and knees. For every extra pound you gain, you add 3 pounds of pressure to your knees and increase pressure on your hips six-fold. Conversely, losing even a little weight can reduce symptoms and slow the progress of osteoarthritis. Building strong leg muscles can also help reduce osteoarthritis of the knee.

  • Do sleep needs change as we age? How much sleep do we need after age 50?
  • Answer:

    As children and adolescents we need more sleep then we do as young adults. But by our senior years, we need the same seven to nine hours a night we did as teens

    Though studies show most sleep problems are not related to aging, sometimes medical or emotional conditions linked to getting older can interfere with sleep. Indeed, the National Sleep Foundation reports older adults with four or more health problems are 80% likely to report sleep problems, compared with 53% who report better health. 

    In addition, aging also affects our sleep-wake pattern, causing us to feel sleepy earlier in the evening and wake earlier in the morning -- even if we were typically a "night person" before. 

    Getting enough sleep is particularly important after 50, because a lack can increase the risk of memory problems, pain, and depression, as well as nighttime falls.

  • What exactly is "preventive care," and what do you need after age 50?
  • Answer:

    Preventive care is just a fancy term for making sure that you are doing everything you can to protect your health. If communication between you and your doctor is good, then you are likely already involved in some degree of preventive care. However, to be sure you are getting all you need, AARP recommends talking to your doctor about the following screening exams:

    Many screening guidelines are changing, so ask your doctor yearly what tests you should consider. In addition, if you are over age 50, you should consider a yearly flu shot. You should consider asking your doctor about a shingles vaccine if you are at least 60 years old. Over 65? Then talk to your doctor about a pneumonia vaccine.

  • I see lots of vitamin supplements for the "golden years." Are they necessary?
  • Answer:

    Our nutritional needs change as we age. Many of us don't eat as well; plus, certain vitamins and nutrients can be more easily depleted from our bodies as we age. These include vitamin B12 (our ability to absorb it from foods can be reduced with aging); calcium (our needs go up as we get older); vitamin D (our skin doesn't absorb it as well when we are older); and vitamin B6 (which may be needed to keep red blood cells healthy and strong). 

    But do you need a special "aging vitamin?" According to the experts at the National Institutes of Aging, any multivitamin that offers the minimum daily requirement will do the trick. You also don't need megadoses. In fact, when taken in very large doses, some supplements can harm you. And if you are taking any prescription medications, check your supplement choice with your doctor. Some nutrients may interfere with certain medications.

  • I just don't enjoy the things I used to, and I don't feel much like visiting friends or family. Is this part of aging?
  • Answer:

    As we age, certain life changes can alter how we feel about things, including activities and people we used to enjoy. For example, the death of loved one, moving into retirement, or developing health problems can leave us feeling temporarily blue, sad, or just "not like myself." For many folks, a temporary "time out" to reflect on the changes is all that's necessary before they can begin renewing positive feelings about their life. 

    When, however, this doesn't occur, depression may be the reason. For those over age 50, a less serious form known as "subsyndromal depression" is common and frequently characterized by a lack of desire or interest in things you once loved. So, any time you're not feeling "like yourself" for a few months, talk to your doctor. Simple lifestyle or diet changes -- and sometimes medication -- may be all you need to find that enthusiasm for life again.

  • Do only women have to worry about bone health after age 50?
  • Answer:

    The main risk to bone health as we age is osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disorder that increases the risk of breaking a bone and developing painful skeletal deformities. While women are affected four times more often than men (the number is expected to reach 35 million this year), men are also at risk. In fact, the National Osteoporosis Foundation reports it is one of the most underdiagnosed conditions in older men. Some 14 million American men have osteoporosis or low bone mass (a precursor to this condition), with that number expected to rise to 17 million this year.

    And while bones do become weaker as we age, aging alone is not the cause of osteoporosis. Contributing factors include small bone structure, low weight, low testosterone, and in women, menopause. Men on hormone therapy for prostate cancer are also at high risk. Other medications can also increase risks, including antacids containing aluminum, methotrexate (for cancer), heparin (a blood thinner), cholestyramine (for high cholesterol), and some seizure medications.

    To reduce risks, men and women should increase calcium intake, stop smoking, keep alcohol consumption low, and exercise regularly, particularly with weight-bearing workouts such as walking.

  • How important is it to stop smoking? Isn't the damage already done?
  • Answer:

    No matter your age, quitting smoking immediately cuts some important health risks. According to the American Lung Association, when an older person stops smoking, circulation immediately improves. The lungs begin an immediate repair process, and just one year after quitting, the risk of heart disease linked to smoking is cut almost in half, along with a reduced risk of stroke, lung disease, and some cancers. 

    Moreover, men who quit smoking at age 65 add up to two years to their life, while women add almost four years. TAlong with watching your weight and getting enough exercise, quitting smoking could help you live significantly longer. 

    What happens if you don't quit? The American Lung Association reports that men over age of 65 who smoke are twice as likely to die from a stroke, while women smokers are 1.5 times at greater risk. Similarly, for all smokers over age 65, the risk of dying from a heart attack is 60% higher than for non-smokers. Smoking also increases the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer's disease, as well as cataracts, a leading cause of blindness and vision loss associated with aging.

  • How much alcohol can someone over 50 safely drink, and does our tolerance change with aging?
  • Answer:

    The safety of alcohol intake at any age is highly personal and dependent on individual health risks and medication use. For some, a drink or two every day is fine, while for others, even one drink can be harmful. 

    The National Institute on Aging reminds us that our tolerance for alcohol decreases with age. That means you'll feel the impact of what you drink sooner -- with less alcohol needed to slow reflexes and reaction times than when you were younger. 

    If you enjoy a daily cocktail or glass of wine or beer, check with your doctor to make certain it won't interfere with your health or your treatments. If you are having more than one drink per day, make sure your doctor knows; it's an important part of your medical record and could influence treatment now and in the future.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD on July 11, 2012

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