January 30, 2019

As we age: A few quick health tips

Front view of happy senior diverse couple sitting in a white room in beach house. Authentic Senior Retired Life Concept

Staying healthy as we age can be a challenge, especially knowing that most adults 65 and older are managing some type of chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart disease.

It’s fairly easy, says UW Health Geriatrician Nathaniel Chin, MD, to prevent milder health concerns from turning more serious. We just need to remember that our bodies are not the same as they used to be.

“As we get older, our bodies become less resilient in fighting infectious disease,” said Dr. Chin. “When we’re in our 30s or 40s, we typically recover quite well from the flu or even pneumonia. By the time we’re in our 60s and up, it’s vitally important that we take every measure possible to prevent these same infections that can lead to much more serious outcomes later in life.”

Prevent milder health concerns from turning more serious

Here are a few quick tips from Dr. Chin that apply to patients of all ages, but especially for seniors:

Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate

Flu: Get a flu shot every year, before the peak flu season, which lasts from November through March. Even if you have not been vaccinated before the season starts, it still pays to get the vaccine anytime in winter.

Pneumonia: Pneumococcal disease kills 18,000 adults 65+ every year in the United States. Because older adults are at greater risk for pneumonia, it is important to get vaccinated if you have not already done so. Check with your doctor.

Shingles (herpes zoster): Almost one out of every three people in the United States will develop this very painful condition in their lifetime. Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox can get shingles, however the risk increases with age. Vaccination, which is typically covered by insurance as early as age 60, can significantly reduce the chance of getting shingles.

Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis): While rare, these conditions still happen, with outbreaks of Pertussis (whooping cough) increasing over the past decade. Most people were vaccinated for at least one or more of these diseases, however your doctor can say if you need a booster.

Hepatitis B: This is a contagious virus that can cause liver damage or death. Most Americans are vaccinated against hepatitis B as infants, but it’s worth checking to be sure you are one of them.

Stay hydrated

Don’t forget to drink enough water. It’s easy to overlook, but we simply don’t drink as much water as we think we do. Staying hydrated, especially as we age, is especially vital for many reasons, said Dr. Chin.

“Drinking liquids keeps our blood pressure up, which prevents dizziness and falls. Hydrating also keeps our kidneys and liver well flushed and helps prevent constipation.” he said.

Take a medication time-out

Many patients over age 65 are taking more than 10 medications, according to Dr. Chin. Chances are, you may not need all of them, especially if you’ve taken the same thing for decades without question. There also may be negative drug interactions, so it’s a good idea to go over your medication list with your doctor. Be sure to ask about vitamins and supplements too, which can have their own interactions with medications.

Does an aspirin a day really help? Aspirin used to be given out like candy to prevent heart disease and strokes. Because aspirin can cause bleeding, we are now more cautious about advising it. Ask your doctor, but in general, you should be taking daily aspirin if you have had:

  • A heart attack

  • A stent procedure

  • Coronary artery bypass surgery

  • A stroke or mini-stroke

  • Surgery on your neck or lower other arteries.

If you have not had heart or blood vessel disease, you may not need to take aspirin. Ask your health care provider to find out for sure.

What about statins? If you have made it to 80 years old without a heart attack, stroke, or other forms of heart and blood vessel disease, you probably don’t need to start on one, but if you are taking a statin, you probably should not stop it. Again, ask your doctor.

Eyes and ears

Aging people can experience vision and hearing loss over time — and both can lead to an increased risk of falling. Be sure to have your vision and hearing checked regularly.

Our eyes change as we age. In our 40s, we often notice that it gets harder to see close objects or small print. In our 50s, we may find that night driving becomes more of a strain. Be sure to have your eyes checked every year, especially if you are noticing any changes.

Age-related hearing loss, which most of us experience as we get older, can make it harder to understand what our friends, family members or doctors are saying, let alone important sounds like smoke alarms, phones or doorbells. Hearing loss can be treated, so ask your doctor if you or your partner suspects a change in your hearing.