As seniors, our bodies change with each decade of life. Starting 2018 with a healthy look ahead can be as basic as a candid discussion with your physician. Each decade offers the potential for a different definition of good health. LifeTimes spoke with Dr. Lucy Guerra, associate professor of internal medicine with geriatric specialty at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, about what each decade might portend in terms of health focus. Putting pre-existing conditions and genetics aside, we asked Guerra where the patient and physician might look to keep ahead of the aging process. Fred W. Wright, Times correspondent
50 and up
Not surprisingly, a conservative approach to health maintenance starts in the early 50s.
"There are certain cancer screening tests that can be done for both men and women," she said. "Colon cancer screening is recommended for almost all patients.
"Colon cancer is a major cause ... when it comes to death in the United States. That’s No. 1."
Most women should get a mammogram at 50, she said, although "recommendations differ as to who should get it at 60 and who should get it earlier."
An area that people in their 50s often overlook, unless there are symptoms, is eyesight. An eye exam to look for early changes can potentially alert us to problems that can occur when we’re older, such as cataracts and glaucoma.
Another area of health that impacts well-being is sexual dysfunction, said Guerra, 48. "There is menopause for both men and women," she said. Add in the trend toward a more sedentary lifestyle as we get older, and sexual desire and performance can be something worth discussing with your doctor.
Many women begin to have menopause symptoms at 50 to 55, Guerra said. "Men begin to go through a decline in their testosterone levels in their 50s."
Mental well-being is also an important focus, she said.
"Alzheimer’s disease is very, very common as people age. People are living longer.
"In their 50s, if a person starts to experience a decline in memory or if there is family history of Alzheimer’s, that’s something to bring to the attention of your doctor."
On the plus side, Guerra said, there are memory screening tests that can be done "early on to see if there are any memory issues … for Alzheimer’s and dementia as you age."
Diabetes can be a problem at any age, Guerra noted, but as hormones change with the aging process, the metabolism tends to slow down and there can be a tendency toward Type 2 diabetes.
The 50s can also be a time for a change in blood pressure, again due, in part, to a less active lifestyle. That’s an easy component your physician can monitor.
The 60s and 70s
Once in your 60s and 70s, the same suggestions hold true, but even more so. Key cancer screening tests such as a colonoscopy and a mammogram are even more important to discuss with your physician.
Paying attention to memory and eyesight become increasingly important at this time. "Cataracts are very common when you get into your late 60s and 70s," Guerra said.
As the decades unfold, changes are natural in the body’s bones and muscles. "Falls are very, very common," she said. Seniors may need a cane or a walker. A fall can lead to a hip fracture, Guerra said.
"Balance issues go along with falls," she said. "Also, if you can’t see, depth perception is messed up and therefore you’re more likely to fall."
In the late 70s and beyond, hearing becomes even more important to quality of life, Guerra said. "If you can’t hear conversations well or, while driving, can’t hear sounds around you ... you’re more likely to get into accidents."
Osteoporosis, or a decrease in bone density, is another potential factor for those in their 70s and older, making falls even more dangerous.
And there can be other contributing factors toward a tendency to fall. "You have little bones in your ears that are important to hearing," Guerra said. "They get almost scar tissue. They don’t function as they should so you don’t hear as well. You don’t move as well."
The journey through the coming years and even decades can be smoothed with attention to changes in our metabolism and our lifestyles and by heading off detours when possible with the aid of a physician.
Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at [email protected]