HEALTH MATTERS | Experts say early preparation aids in aging well
It’s not your grandparents’ old age.
With access to clean water, vaccinations, waste removal, electricity and refrigerators, people are not only surviving to live longer, they are remaining active and living better in their senior years.
As the late George Burns famously said: “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”
Some are calling it the longevity revolution.
Based on current life expectancy and average health quality, the World Health Organizations suggests that people in developed nations are “young” until they are 65, “middle aged” up to 79 and “elderly” until they hit 100. Then they are “long-lived elderly.”
Local experts say there are ways to improve your odds of achieving the upper categories, while continuing to have a good quality of life. And it’s never too early to prepare to be an active senior.
“It starts when you’re born,” said Trina Thompson, executive director of the 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health.
“People don’t think about that. They don’t address things until they actually occur.”
Much of the typical advice for healthy living helps prepare for healthy, active older years, Thompson said at the center’s office in Pasquerilla Plaza.
Good nutrition, regular walking or other activity, and recommended screenings and immunizations should be part of any senior’s life.
“All those things can help us keep healthy,” Thompson said.
“An annual checkup is important. Many things that age our bodies happen slowly, and there are no symptoms until they actually occur.”
Dr. Sam Wint, primary care physician at SeniorLIFE of Johnstown, had some tips for remaining healthy.
“The No. 1 thing that happens to all of us is dehydration,” Wint said. “We have a tendency not to drink like we should.”
Lesser-recognized early symptoms of dehydration can include dizziness after standing up and loss of energy, he said.
A healthy diet provides the core for a good quality of life.
However, seniors need to keep their bodies’ changes in mind, he said.
“I believe in nutrition,” Wint said. “Not fad-crazy diets, but general nutrition. For geriatric folks, the key thing for us is we don’t have the same (gastrointestinal) system any more.”
The digestive tract doesn’t absorb nutrients as well as it does in younger people, and the mechanism that squeezes food through the system is not as efficient, he explained.
“We should be grazers,” Wint said. “Have something to eat maybe every couple hours. That say you are not bloated, and not hungry all day long.”
Health screenings recommended for senior citizens include blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, bone density and colon cancer, along with regular hearing, eye and dental exams.
Current smokers and those who have histories of smoking should get lung cancer screenings.
Men should get prostate cancer screenings and women should get mammograms, breast exams, cervical exams with a pap smear.
Regular physical activity is crucial to senior health, even if it is only a few days a week.
“I’m not talking about vigorous exercise,” Wint said. But even if you are not an exercise person, you should get into a structured exercise program.”
Walking and swimming can be enjoyable options, he said, adding that pets can be part of the healthy living plan.
“They provide a purpose,” he said. “With dogs, you have to walk them.”
Healthy aging encompasses more than just medical and physical health, Wint stresses. Mental wellness can affect physical health.
“Socialization is important; doing is important; being out there, getting into society is important,” Wint said.
The importance of interacting with others can’t be understated, Thompson said.
“We have learned that social contact is extremely important,” she said. “Loneliness is a risk factor for dying early.”
Thompson recently attended a conference where a study was presented showing chronic loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Family members and neighbors can help with regular visits, she says.
Depression among the older population often begins with loneliness and pessimistic thoughts about changes in their lives, the local experts say.
“Life changes as people get older, retire and move into the next phase,” said Dr. Umesh Chakunta, a geriatric psychiatry specialist at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.
“People are worried about how they are going to be cared for when they get older.”
The pessimism can be self-fulfilling, Wint said.
“One of the things that happens when you get older, you start thinking about your illness you start thinking that you are older,” Wint said. “Depression doesn’t mean you are sick. It means you have too much time on your hands and you think about being older.”
Learning a new language, taking a cooking class or getting involved with a volunteer organization can turn those feelings around, Chakunta said.
“Start making changes in your life to be active,” he said. “Engage with other people. It puts people in a better mood and keeps them going for a longer life.”
Socialization is an important part for the SeniorLIFE program and the Cambria County Area Agency on Aging senior activities centers.
SeniorLIFE serves those who could enter a skilled care nursing facility but want to stay at home, Executive Director Bob Voeghtly said. Many of its members come to the 401 Broad St. facility for therapy, medical care, counseling and other services. But there are also daily meals and activities, similar to an adult day care center.
“We wrap services around nursing home eligible individuals to keep them in their homes,” Voeghtly said. “We meet members where they are, because remaining at home and in the community is what people want.”
Senior activities centers are built on the concept of improving quality of life, said M. Veil Griffith, Cambria County Area Agency on Aging director.
“We have programs to promote healthy aging,” Griffith said, listing dance classes, exercise routines, card groups, special trips and daily healthy meals.
The agency also provides home delivered meals, bringing the total meals provide to more than 300,000 a year, she said.
“It’s so important as we age to read the labels and try to eat as healthy as we can,” Griffith said. “‘Let foods be your medicine and medicine be your food,’ the saying goes.”
Social interaction and cognitive activities, such as reading and doing puzzles, can also help delay or reduce symptoms of dementia, Chakunta said.
“The more active someone is, the better off they are,” he said. “That really helps the stay ahead of the curve.”
Sometimes socialization, physical activity and a healthy diet are not enough, Chakunta said. Seniors and their loved ones should be aware that signs of depression and physical illness are not the same in the older population.
In younger people, symptoms of depression often include dramatic changes in behavior or sleep patterns.
“Seniors may get bored and not in good spirits,” Chakunta said. “They prefer to stay at home, and feel they have more problems with memory than they do. Their self-worth goes down and they have feelings of hopelessness.
“Those are the signs of depression in older people. If it remains noticeable, get help from a mental health specialist.”