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Healthy Aging Starts Sooner Than You Think

  • Published
  • By J.D. Levite
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
While it may not seem like something young Airmen should be concerned about, staying healthy in old age starts with being healthy at a younger age.

“By investing time and effort into quality diet and exercise habits, we will prevent future geriatric patients from being as sick and debilitated as they could be,” said Lt. Col. Brande Harris, an Internal Medicine physician with a geriatric fellowship with the 59th Medical Operations Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio. She added that heart disease, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are three ailments that take a huge toll on the body as it ages.

Harris said Airmen should look at what they’re doing now to stay healthy, like “maintaining an exercise regimen that’s not just pointed at passing a test. Get physically fit and stay physically fit year-to-year.”

She added a healthy diet includes staying away from the fad diets.  “Just adhere to clean foods made at home as opposed to McDonald’s on your way into work,” she recommended.

Harris said they encourage a good diet and exercise no matter what, but there are other factors that play into a healthy lifestyle for the older population. Continued education, for example, can be protective against the onset of dementia.

She said, “One of the problems older adults have is they become more sedentary and quit having as much social engagement. Being socially engaged with friends and work help keeps the brain functioning well and adaptable to the environment.”

The older generation is also more susceptible to falls because their vision decreases as they get older and it’s important to be aware of that.

“If they have cataracts they can get those cleared up,” Harris said. “Pick up rugs, move chords for electronic stuff to the edge of the room. If their gait is unbalanced or unstable, use a cane or walker appropriately.”

Preventive medicine is important for geriatrics. Harris said once people reach their 70s and 80s a lot of the preventive medicine practices they had been doing, like colonoscopies, go away, but vaccinations are still very important. Pneumonia, influenza, and shingles are vaccinations they should keep up with.

“The tetanus shot is being packaged with whooping cough because it’s making a comeback with geriatric patients,” Harris said. “Most of our older adults were immunized from whooping cough by having the disease and surviving it. We’re finding people who had the disease or the vaccinations are waning immunization, so they need boosters to maintain immunity to that.”

Different forms of dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, can also be debilitating for older adults. People in their 70s should really think about getting a power of attorney, giving someone they trust the authority to help make decisions should it be needed.

“The best time to make this decision is now when the brain is working fine,” Harris said. “The worst time is when you’re too sick and you don’t understand the information you’re being told, and that time could come.”

Even if you haven’t reached that older age where these are things you should be worrying about, you might have someone in your life that has. There are many things you can do to help them.

Harris said, “If I were going to be helping one of my grandparents age successfully and be healthy, I’d make sure doctor appointments were kept. Make sure they get their vaccinations taken care of at the appropriate time.”

She added that keeping a sleep schedule is really important for the elderly and something families can help with, too.

Harris said the Alzheimer’s Association is a great resource because it’s a national organization that can connect people with support they need when diagnosed with dementia. She also said if you’re elderly and live near a city there are senior centers with social activities, and she often encourages her patients to get involved.

Older adults should continue to advance their health literacy as they age, and remember that diet and exercise are key to healthy aging.