WASHINGTON — President Bush turns 59 on Wednesday — and with just one year left before officially becoming a senior citizen, it’s one of those birthdays that marks a good time to take stock of your health.
People Bush’s age can expect to live another 22 years or so. The goal isn’t just to get all those years but to make them quality ones, and live independently as long as possible.
That’s important both for individuals and for society, as next year the first of the 78 million baby boomers begin turning 60.
“People become a little bit more conscious of their health as they move into their 60s, because they begin to notice limitations in their ability to do things they’ve always done,” says Dr. J. Edward Hill, president of the American Medical Association.
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Stiff joints, fading memory
This is the period when joints often start to stiffen, and it can take a little longer to dredge up memories from a brain overloaded with experiences. Simply getting older increases risk of illness; 30 percent of people 65 and over have three or more chronic diseases. But age doesn’t dictate health, especially if you took care in earlier decades.
The president approaches this milestone with an advantage: Despite some extra pounds and mild artery stiffness found at his checkup last winter, he’s very fit, with a love of exercise that doctors wish his fellow graying boomers would emulate.
He also gets better health care than lots of Americans, and has 10 physicians at his annual physicals.
Most of us don’t need 10 docs hovering at once. But there are some basic steps for everyone entering their senior years.
Stay physically active
First, keep physically active, whether you’re approaching 60 or 90. This is doctors’ top advice because exercise affects so many of aging’s consequences: It improves heart and lung function, slows arthritis, fights weight gain that can spur cancer, improves balance — falls are a major cause of seniors’ disability — and helps keep bones strong and the brain sharp.
No, grandmothers don’t have to start jogging. Gardening or dancing counts; so does a daily walk. The more you can do, the better.
“We need to start thinking of exercise as a daily routine just like brushing your teeth and combing your hair,” says the American Geriatrics Society’s Dr. Sharon Brangman, geriatrics chief at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University.
Keep mentally active, too, to help guard against dementia.
Next, get the right checkups. Among government-recommended screenings:
- Blood pressure, at least every two years, more often if it’s high.
- Cholesterol, at least every 5 years.
- Diabetes, if you have such risk factors as high blood pressure or cholesterol, a diabetic relative, are overweight, or are black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaskan Native.
- A bone-density test for osteoporosis, for all women over 65 and any man or woman who suffers a fracture after 50.
- Colorectal cancer, starting at age 50 and repeated every year to 10 years, depending on which test is used.
- Mammograms every year or two for women.
- The PSA test for prostate cancer is controversial; discuss pros and cons with your doctor.
- Regular eye exams to check for cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration.
Don’t forget immunizations. Everyone needs a one-time pneumonia vaccination at 65, sooner if they have heart disease or other risk factors. Annual flu shots start at age 50.
An ongoing relationship with a primary care physician becomes even more important at 60, says Hill. Someone who’s cared for you for years should notice declining health early, and can coordinate care if specialists prescribe dueling drugs.
Then there’s diet. Cutting fat and eating more fruits and vegetables counters aging-slowed metabolism that makes shedding pounds harder, says Brangman. Plus, roughage prevents constipation, another hazard of aging. Strive for foods high in brain- and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish. Ask your doctor if you need a vitamin, the only way many older women get the daily 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 400-600 international units of vitamin D needed for strong bones.
It’s advice even for long-lived families, because lifestyle can trump good genes, says the AMA’s Hill: He needed heart surgery at 57 despite parents who were healthy at 90.
Finally, get a durable power of attorney and advanced directive or “living will,” to help ensure your health care wishes are followed should you become too ill to communicate them, Hill stresses.
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