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Age-Related Health Issues: The News Is Better Than You'd Think

The risk of heart disease increases as you age, but the good news is that heart disease is one area where lifestyle really makes a big difference. If you aren't affected by heart disease now, you may not be in the future, either. Ask your health care professional about tests you should have to check on your heart's health. If you have one or more forms of heart disease now, there are many things you can do, in addition to using medication that's likely been recommended for you, to improve your health. Either way, be sure to eat well (choosing food from a variety of groups, high in fiber and low in saturated fat and cholesterol) and get plenty of exercise. Exercise does not have to be strenuous—a regular habit of brisk walking most days of the week for 30 to 60 minutes, and ideally, once a day, is all you need to do to reduce your risk of heart problems.

Cancer risk increases as you age as well, though probably not as much as you'd think. By the time you are in your 70s, much of your lifetime risk for cancer is behind you. If you've made it to your 70s healthy, you stand a good chance of avoiding cancer altogether. Eat well, exercise daily and be sure to have cancer screenings regularly or when your health care professional recommends them.

This is the time of life when we really start to worry about memory loss and mental functioning. Keep in mind that some change in memory is perfectly normal. As you age, the speed at which your brain processes information slows a bit. But you don't need to worry that you are developing dementia (a condition marked by loss of intellectual function that interferes with normal activities) if you lose your keys or forget the name of the woman who waits on you at the bank every once in awhile. (You did things like that when you were 40, remember?) Do take steps to stay sharp, though. Exercise regularly, learn complex new skills, such as a language, card games or chess, and stay connected with friends and family. These activities will do a lot to keep your mental functioning sharper than ever. If you are worried about memory loss, be sure to discuss your concerns with your health care professional. If there is a problem, early diagnosis will give you more treatment options.

You'll want to be especially aware of your bones now. A combination of aerobic exercise (such as walking) and strength training (lifting small hand weights) can help maintain and improve bone mass. Be sure to get plenty of calcium and vitamin D, as well. If you already have osteoporosis, talk to your health care professional about what types of exercises you can safely do. Preventing falls is important at any age, but particularly now when a fall-related fracture can mean months of recovery and additional risks for your health. Take steps to prevent falls (and thus fractures) by creating a fall-proof environment—remove throw rugs, cords and clutter from around your house—and be cautious when doing physical activities.

You'll probably notice some changes in your vision. Dry eye (caused by hormonal changes following menopause that affect the quality and quantity of tear production in your eye) often becomes a problem for women in their 70s. Reduce the effects of this condition by drinking plenty of fluids and limiting the amount of time you spend in front of the computer and television. Ask about available treatment options for dry eye. See your eye specialist for screenings for glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration once every one to two years. Research suggests that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can be very helpful in keeping your eyes healthy and your vision sharp.

If it hasn't already, hearing can also diminish starting in your 70s. If you are having trouble hearing people on the telephone or if you can't hear well when there is a lot of background noise, be sure and tell your health care professional. Many types of hearing aids are available now, and you might be able to find one that will work to keep you active and connected.

As we age, it becomes more difficult to absorb nutrients from food. You may find that you are deficient in iron, vitamin B-12 or vitamin D. If you don't already take one, talk to your health care professional about a daily multivitamin. And while it is still important to protect yourself from sunburn by using sunscreen when exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods of time, it is a good idea to get a little bit of sun each day, if possible. Fifteen minutes of sunlight on exposed forearms can make a big difference in your vitamin D levels—and that can help with everything from bone health to cancer prevention.

Preventive Health Screenings You Need

Because you've made it this far still healthy, you may be tempted to skip your routine health care screenings. Don't. Diagnosing health conditions at early stages is the key to improving your chances of treating them successfully. Be aware that some screening recommendations have changed for individuals at your age, so take note. And, a handful of tests may be new to you. Talk to your health care professional about steps you can take to make your seventh decade a healthy and productive one.

Blood pressure: Have your blood pressure taken at least every two years if normal, more often if it is at or above 120/80. Your health care professional may recommend more frequent screenings.

Bone mineral density test: If you have not already had one, you should get a bone mineral density scan to check for osteoporosis. Your health care professional will advise you on follow-up testing depending on the results.

Cholesterol: Continue to have your cholesterol checked every five years if you do not have any risks for heart disease. Your health care professional may recommend more frequent screenings.

Colorectal cancer screening: You should be screened for colorectal cancer using any of several different screening methods. There are a number of tests that screen for colorectal cancer, and they are divided into two groups: tests that find both colorectal cancer and polyps, and those that mainly find cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk of colorectal cancer have one of the following screening tests beginning at age 50:

Tests that find polyps and cancer:

  • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years
  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every five years
  • Double contrast barium enema every five years

(If any of the above tests are positive, a colonoscopy should be done.)

Tests that mainly find cancer:

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) every year
  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year
  • Stool DNA (sDNA), interval uncertain

Discuss options and procedures with your health care professional to determine the best screening method for you.

Diabetes blood sugar test: You should be screened every three years; more often or earlier if you’re overweight or have other risks for diabetes.

Dental exam: Continue to have regular dental exams every six to 12 months. It might surprise you to learn that bone loss associated with osteoporosis increases your risk of tooth loss.

Eye exam: Have your eyes examined every one to two years to check for glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration. If you have symptoms of eye disease or risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure or family history of eye problems, see an ophthalmologist to determine how often you should have your eyes examined.

Mammogram: You should be screened for breast cancer with mammography every one to two years and get a clinical breast exam annually. Guidelines on breast cancer screening vary, so talk to your health care professional about what’s right for you.

Pap test and pelvic exam: If you've been screened previously with normal results, you can stop having Pap tests altogether. However, if you have a new sexual partner or any conditions that put you at high risk for cervical cancer, you need to continue this test every three years (or every five years, if combined with the HPV test). Ask your health care provider what's right for you, and be sure to continue your yearly physical and pelvic exam.

Thyroid test (TSH): Recommendations vary. The American Thyroid Association recommends having a TSH screening test at age 35 and then once every five years. The American Academy of Family Physicians does not recommend screening patients before age 60. And the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force states that there's not enough evidence to recommend for or against thyroid screening in adults. Ask your health care professional for guidance.

Skin exam for skin cancer: The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you have your skin examined every year. Recommendations include doing a monthly mole self-exam and practicing sun safety to reduce your risk of damaging your skin and developing skin cancer. If you have had skin cancer or have a relative with a history of melanoma, ask your health care professional for guidance.

Immunizations:

Herpes zoster: If you weren’t vaccinated in your 60s, get the herpes zoster vaccinated once to prevent shingles.

Influenza: Have a yearly influenza vaccination.

Pneumonia: If you have not already been immunized against pneumonia, you should do this now.

Tetanus: Continue to have tetanus boosters every 10 years.