Most baby boomers worry about losing their independence and facing a decline in quality of life as they get older. They also are concerned that their nest egg will not last to the end of their lives. We see this every day in our patients and this has encouraged us to strategize to prevent these unfortunate events. We have looked at different physical abilities and how they decline with age and formulated a preventive plan. Prevention is the name of the game as you consider the cost of health care and avoiding the physical and financial effects of chronic, preventable diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke or the results of falling.
It is important to maintain strength as we age. You do not want to get so frail that it is difficult to get up from the floor, out of a chair or carry in groceries. Sarcopenia, the age-related decline in muscle mass and function, contributes to this. People begin to lose about 1 percent of muscle mass per year in their 40’s. With each decade the rate accelerates: by the 70’s the muscle loss can be 15% a decade. There are ways to prevent this decline. The best way to strengthen muscles is through daily exercise. The best combination is 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day, such as walking and a basic strength-training program that can be specifically designed for you. Some data suggests that men who lift weights several times a week in their 50’s and 60’s cannot only slow the loss of muscle mass, but even halt it. This should apply to woman as well. Maintaining good strength in muscles also makes them less susceptible to injury.
Flexibility and stretching are mentioned a lot in the literature relating to improved athletic performance, but it is a very important aspect of aging as well. One of the most debilitating declines in older adults is loss of flexibility and loss of the upright position and mobility of the spine. Stretching the spine can be trickier than the arms and legs because there may be an underlying cause for the loss of mobility that should be explored. Poor posture contributes to significant spine pain and disability. It is important to maintain flexibility of the legs so you continue to take a long stride rather than short shuffling steps that may affect balance and contribute to falling. You also want to be able to squat to pick things up. It is important to have flexibility in the arms so you can reach over your head to put things away and get things out of a cabinet. Flexibility as well as strength helps to prevent muscle injury.
More than half of women over 65 are affected by osteoporosis. In the 6 years after menopause, a woman can lose 20% or more of her bone mass, setting the stage for disabling fractures in her 60’s. In addition to taking 1200 milligrams of calcium and 1,000 mg of vitamin D3 daily, women and men at risk for osteoporosis should get 30 minutes of weight bearing exercise daily. This includes walking, jogging or running. Upper body weight training can also help to strengthen the bones of the arms, reducing the risk of wrist and shoulder fractures, which are common in older women.
Every year one in three people over the age of 65 falls. This can result in fractures, more commonly in the wrist, spine and hip, and head injuries. Falls can also lead to premature death and disability. Among older adults falls are the most common cause of non-fatal injuries and hospital admissions due to trauma. Poor balance and frailty can contribute to falling. Staying strong and flexible definitely contributes to good balance, but there are specific neurological systems in the body that can be trained as well. Balance testing can be done to determine where the risks are and programs designed to reverse the decline.
Physical exercise helps lower blood glucose, and that may protect memory, according to an intriguing new brain imaging study by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center. They found that older people with elevated blood sugar have less activity in the dentate gyrus, a brain region key to memory. That difference holds true even if they don’t have diabetes. Blood glucose levels tend to rise as people get older, and about 40 % of people 65 and older have age related memory impairment. Controlling glucose through diet, medication, or exercise could not only reduce the risk of diabetes but preserve brain function.
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