Aging may be inevitable, but getting “old” as in creaky and infirm is not. By knowing what to expect each decade in life, you can take charge of the aging process and counter it with diet, exercise and other prevention strategies. Do it well, and you can “forget” to put a few candles on the cake—and no one will know the difference.
Photo by Army Medicine via Flickr
It is never too late to reverse bad habits, but good health is really a cumulative process. Build up bone mass as a young adult and you’ll have less to worry about in later life; clean arteries in the 30s stand a better chance of staying clear into the 60s. That being said, quit the bad habits—smoking, excessive drinking, overeating, couch potato-ing—asap. Along with that, purge the sugars, processed foods, white carbs, excess sodium, trans fat and excessive omega-6 fats (from vegetable oils) from your diet. Replace with fruits and vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fats found in fatty fish like salmon, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Establish a relationship with a health care provider, who will order routine screenings and immunizations to keep you on track—but don’t be afraid to ask questions if that provider (or others) starts bulking you up on prescriptions as you age.
We tapped several area medical and wellness professionals to guide us on the aging journey. Lee Memorial Health System’s Dr. Heather Auld and Teresa Spano, a naturopathic consultant, told us what to expect each decade; wellness specialist Joe Pitrone, owner of Sports Medicine and Wellness Therapy in Naples and Marco Island, gave us some pointers on crafting age-specific fitness routines; and registered dietitian-nutritionist Dee Harris, owner of D-Signed Nutrition of Bonita Springs, told us how making the right food choices can ward off age-related problems.
Life’s good, right? You’re young and presumably healthy. You’re no longer the workplace rookie. You’ve maybe got a spouse, a home, a couple of kids. And you are insanely busy. Beware the stress monster—it’s lurking in pretty much every aspect of your life. Chronic stress triggers the release of cortisol, the “fight-or-flight” hormone. Cortisol is quite useful in emergencies, but a constant stream of it wreaks havoc on our bodies, interfering with digestion, lowering immunity, disrupting sleep, prompting inflammation and challenging memory. Some “you” time is in order. Carve out breaks for the things you enjoy. Learn stress-busting measures like meditation, deep breathing, prayer or reflection. In addition to stress-related ailments, men during this decade may see the beginnings of high blood pressure, weight gain or male pattern baldness; women may experience worsening pre-menstrual syndrome in the mid-30s as estrogen starts to decline. Exercise is critical—as a way of relieving stress and avoiding weight gain and blood pressure changes.
Nutrition: You may need extra B vitamins to sustain you through this high-activity/high-stress decade. Organic Tulsi tea, derived from an Indian herb, is known for its calming and antioxidant properties and may be a good addition to your daily routine. Plan meals and snacks in advance to avoid the drive-through window as you dash from work to child care or professional obligations. If you’ve picked up the habit of scarfing your food on the run, you unfortunately also may have developed some digestive issues. Adopting mindful eating practices—smelling, chewing, savoring your food—will improve digestion. So will taking a few deep breaths before eating. Solidify good eating habits now—lots of plant-based foods, herbs and spices—and your body will thank you later.
Exercise: Guess what? You may have already started building up the plaques that can lead to atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries, especially if you’re a man. Good dietary choices and exercise can clean them up. Both men and women should strive for three to five sessions a week of strength training and to do cardiovascular exercise four to six times a week. Remember: You are priming your body now to face the effects of aging later.
Screenings/Immunizations/Other: Pap tests for women are needed less frequently starting at age 30—every five years as long as you test for the HPV virus at the same time. Men, it’s time you get your cholesterol checked due to the toll heart disease takes on your gender. Additionally, the CDC recommends annual flu vaccines for all adults and a Td booster every 10 years.
It’s true what they say: The eyesight is the first thing to go. Most likely you’re noticing changes in your ability to read the fine print and to see things close up. It’s time to get established with an eye specialist. You’re probably full-blown into your career by now or trying to get re-established in the workforce if you took time off for childrearing. Review the section on the “30s” for stress management strategies. Men, your testosterone levels will start declining, especially if you are overweight. You need to start worrying about heart disease—limit alcohol, don’t smoke and maintain a healthy weight. Women, you may start seeing menstrual irregularities, hormone changes, and alterations in sleep patterns this decade. Before you reach for Xanax, the anti-anxiety drug, get your hormones screened and take a look at your diet and fitness routines. Metabolism for both genders is slowing down. Be careful! That spare tire signals cardiovascular risk—and for women, an elevated risk of developing breast cancer.
Nutrition: Watch portion sizes to avoid “weight creep.” Make sure you are getting enough protein, as you’ll start to see a decrease in muscle mass and an increase in fat. Ground flax seeds and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli help maintain hormonal balance. Because stress takes a toll on healthy bacteria, restore it with a probiotic supplement or foods that are high in probiotics such as yogurt (watch for excess sugar, though) and fermented foods (sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, kefir—even olives). Talk to your provider about your vitamin D levels—you may need a supplement. Finally, watch your fats. The omega-3s will promote good cardiac and vascular health—essential for both the heart and the brain as we age.
Exercise: Please, just get some! Fitness takes a backseat for many 40-somethings. It’s time to re-take the wheel. Pitrone recommends 45 minutes to an hour a day. If you’ve written that off as impossible, consider this: You don’t have to get it all at once. A series of 10-minute bursts of activity can provide the same benefit (or more!) as a sustained longer workout. What’s more, these mini-workouts can keep calories burning and metabolism cranking throughout the day—a good tool for keeping extra pounds at bay. Strike a balance between strengthening and cardiovascular work, and add in a stretching routine if you don’t have one. That’s critical. Many injuries in the 50s and beyond stem from muscle imbalances. Both dynamic stretches (like shoulder rolls or leg swings) and static, or non-moving, stretches will help muscle fluidity. This is the decade in which men and women start to see different physical issues: Women have to start worrying about osteoporosis and be diligent about weight-bearing exercises; men have to watch their waistlines and cholesterol levels.
Screenings/Immunizations/Other: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and other major medical groups announced this year that mammography appears to be most effective for women ages 50 to 74. That’s a shift from telling women to mark their 40ths with trips to the imaging center. The decision on when to get a first mammogram remains an individual one, and you should ask your doctor what is right for you. Women should also start getting their cholesterol screened (men, don’t forget to keep doing so). The task force also recommends annual screenings for high blood pressure, starting at age 40, and for diabetes and abnormal blood sugar, starting at age 45. In 2012, 12 percent of American adults had diabetes and 37 percent had abnormal blood sugar levels that put them at risk of developing the disease. In addition, Dr. Auld suggests prostate screenings for men.
This can be a tough decade. If you didn’t notice a metabolism change in your 40s, you’re definitely seeing it now. You might be wearing reading glasses—remember to see your eye care specialist to monitor vision changes. Men may start experiencing erectile dysfunction and should talk to their health providers about their concerns and options. Ladies—it’s time to face up to the big, bad “M” word. With menopause come hot flashes, sleep disturbances, moodiness and weight gain (some of which can be avoided with the tips below). You are probably seeing changes in your skin; it’s a good idea to get established with a dermatologist if you haven’t already. This is Florida, land of perpetual sunshine, after all. All that being said, the 50s are also a time to get back to being you as you send the kids packing for college or adulthood. The 50s can bring more time for fitness and recreation, for planning nutritious meals and socializing with friends. Social engagement had been somewhat overlooked in the past, but a growing body of research shows that staying connected is essential to mental and emotional health, which translates into better physical health.
Nutrition: Remember: Slower metabolism = lower caloric need. In other words, you can’t eat like you did in your 20s and 30s anymore. Because of metabolic changes, blood sugar levels may start inching up, putting you at risk of diabetes. Shed the “empty calories” from your diet (that includes alcohol, sorry!) so that you can pack it with nutritionally dense foods. Limiting carbohydrates is another good way to scale back calories. This is a good decade to introduce some nutritional supplements: a multivitamin, an omega-3 oil, vitamin D3 and probiotics. A licensed nutritionist or health care provider can offer guidance on your individual needs. If you do take supplements, make sure to buy products without fillers or dyes.
Exercise: You aren’t as young as you think you are—so ease off on the weights and give yourself a break if your 5K times aren’t as quick as they once were. You risk injury by pretending to be what you are not. Don’t get discouraged, and for goodness sake, don’t quit the gym! It’s merely time to modify your fitness routines. To protect the joints, for example, drop the amount of weight you lift and perform more reps. Make stretching a priority to maintain joint mobility and spinal health (you don’t want that stoop later on). Strengthen the core and the hips to avoid future issues with balance. Ladies, osteoporosis may start taking hold. Get screened, and then make sure you are diligent in your weight-bearing exercises—free weights, machines, body-weight movements such as push-ups and planks are all good ways to build bone density. And as for that dreaded menopausal weight gain—you can fight back! Burn calories with high-intensity interval training, mixing strength training and cardio. It’s going to take work; don’t get discouraged.
Screenings/Immunizations/Other: Auld and Spano recommend men get screened for heart disease and prostate cancer and women get checked for osteoporosis, thyroid function and breast cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that people age 50 to 59 talk to their doctors about whether a low-dose aspirin regimen is right for them. Research suggests that people in their 50s see the greatest benefit of taking aspirin to prevent heart attack, stroke and colorectal cancer. The task force also recommends that people between the ages of 55 and 80 who smoke or those who have smoked within the last 15 years get screened for lung cancer. And you should schedule your first colorectal screen at age 50 and plan to continue those screenings until you are 75.
It’s time for retirement and a much-needed break from the rat race. But while shedding the schedule sounds lovely, it can wreak havoc on eating habits and exercise regimens. Moreover, severing ties with colleagues and losing the daily sense of purpose can lead to feelings of depression and isolation. Poor mental health can trigger physical diseases, so it’s critical to replace old routines with new ones and find activities that allow you to share your gifts or develop your talents. In Southwest Florida, organizations ranging from nature centers to tutoring services rely on retired volunteers to fulfill their missions. FGCU’s Renaissance Academy and Hodges University’s Center for Lifelong Learning both cater to adults who want to learn for the sake of learning. While we advocate social time, we also warn about excessive social drinking. Southwest Florida retirees have a penchant for the bottle—all those poolside cocktail parties! Older adults don’t metabolize alcohol as quickly as they used to, and those pre-dinner drinks can quickly feel like a chugged six-pack. Make the switch to light beer, spritz wine with seltzer water and treat cocktails as just that—an occasional treat. As far as physical changes are concerned, Spano and Auld tell both genders to expect a loss of muscle mass and stress the importance of physical activity. Libido changes become evident this decade, and for women, intercourse may become painful—something to discuss with a health care provider. Watch for hearing loss, particularly for men. Mental changes may become noticeable, too—especially for women, who are more prone to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Stay mentally stimulated to keep those neurons firing.
Nutrition: Checkups and screenings are important this decade, and bloodwork can pinpoint what the body needs—nutritionally or otherwise. Harris recommends talking to your providers about any findings that aren’t within the “optimal” range—even if you don’t yet have a diagnosis. Elevated blood sugar, for example, can be corrected with diet and exercise before it gets into the danger zone. Stick with the calorie-lowering habits that you (hopefully) began in your 50s with fewer carbs and the avoidance of nutritionally devoid junk foods. Eat for your brain! Healthy omega-3 fats, blueberries and walnuts are all good choices for both brain and heart. Women should invest in a good bone formula supplement consisting of calcium, magnesium, boron, vitamin K-2-7 and vitamin D.
Exercise: Balance and coordination can begin to erode this decade, so it’s important to maintain those functions. Some simple strategies include standing on a single leg (you can hold on to a chair at first). Maintain the pose for 15 seconds and then rest. You can work your way up to longer holds as you get better at it. Functional dynamic stretching—movements such as marching in place or performing “soldier kicks”—will also promote balance, along with pinpointing muscle weakness. If you have a hard time shifting back and forth from leg to leg, you’ve got some work to do. Tai chi is a wonderful way to better your balance and maintain your sense of “proprioception,” the sense of where your body is in space. Work on your hips in your 60s because a fall later in life can be devastating. Abdominal, oblique and low back strengthening will also keep you strong and stable.
Screenings/Immunizations/Other: People start to worry about memory issues during this decade; however, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend screenings for cognitive impairment for adults who show no symptoms of memory loss. Shingles becomes a concern starting at age 60; the CDC recommends a dose of the zoster vaccine, even if you’ve had shingles before. It also recommends getting the pneumococcal vaccine at age 65 and making sure you get your annual flu shot. Some 85 percent of influenza cases are in people ages 65 and up.
However you took care of yourself in the past is going to become apparent in this decade; Pitrone, who frequently works with seniors, can see a 5- to 10-year difference between those who stayed active their whole lives and those who got serious with their health later in life. That being said, simple activities like walking can improve health and quality of life—regardless of your health status. And measuring micronutrients—the vitamins and minerals in the body—is important to make sure you are getting the nutrition you need to stay vibrant.
In the 70s, men need to watch for balance issues, cardiac irregularities, arthritis and diverticulitis. Women are at risk of hip fractures and “silent heart disease,” which carries vague symptoms such as fatigue, indigestion, muscle pain or nausea, rather than the sharp pain and shortness of breath associated with heart attack.
Nutrition: Muscle mass has decreased by this point, and maintaining a high-protein/low-calorie diet may be a challenge. If you need to supplement, try an organic whey protein powder to add the necessary amino acids to your diet. Both digestion and absorption slow down during these years; extra fiber will help to avoid constipation. Fresh vegetable juices provide concentrated antioxidants; green tea, curcumin, and fish oil in the form of DHA are excellent for brain health. Make sure your prescription medications aren’t interfering with your nutrient absorption, and talk to your provider about supplements if they are. Harris stresses the importance of monitoring vitamin D levels, a deficiency for many Americans, particularly as they age.
Exercise: Stick with the fitness routines—cardio, weights, stretching, balance exercises—that you hopefully started earlier in life. Depending on your level of fitness, you may find shifting to low-impact exercises makes sense, as do high repetitions of lower amounts of weight. Some people start to shuffle in their 70s. To counter that, work on quadriceps and hip flexors. Practice leg raises to avoid tripping. It’s important to exercise safely: You should have a doctor check you for stroke risk and find a fitness expert who is well-versed in age-related issues to help you develop the routine that’s right for you. If nothing else—walk! Pitrone sometimes asks his older clients (who go into their 90s) what keeps them going. Their inevitable answer: “I haven’t stopped moving.”