Aging affects everyone differently, but there are plenty of ways you can keep your mind and body healthy as you get older. Let’s explore what geriatrics is, as well as some commonly encountered health issues you or your loved one should discuss with your geriatrician during your next visit.
What Is Geriatrics?
Geriatrics is the umbrella term that refers to medical care for older adults. Individuals aged 65 and older are usually considered seniors, but many people don’t require geriatric care until much later in life. Doctors who specialize in the care of seniors, called geriatricians, help their patients follow a healthy aging process, manage their chronic conditions and prolong their lives.
The older you get, the greater your likelihood of developing a chronic disease becomes. In fact, more than 92% of seniors have at least one chronic disease, according to the National Council on Aging. So, which ones should you look out for as you age? Here are a few of the most common:
- Coronary Artery Disease
Geriatricians often look beyond standalone conditions to identify geriatric syndromes, which occur when a group of symptoms consistently occur together. This combination of chronic illnesses can create problems of their own and impede normal brain and body function. Examples include insomnia, delirium, frequent falls and bladder control problems.
Proactive Health Care
As you age, you’ll need to find a geriatrician you trust and visit them regularly to prevent the chronic diseases and syndromes mentioned above. Not only will they perform routine checkups for you, but they’ll also ensure you’re up to date on your vaccines and screenings.
- As an older adult, it’s especially important to get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19.
- After age 75, you and your doctor will decide whether you should continue the routine cancer screenings that you began earlier in life — such as Pap smears, mammograms and colonoscopies — based on your anticipated lifespan.
Staying active is one of the best things you can do for your body as you age, so it’s important to get into the habit of moving regularly. Exercise doesn’t have to mean lifting heavy weights or spending hours on the treadmill. All it takes is establishing a routine that gets you up on your feet for about 30 minutes of moderate activity each day. Regular physical activity for seniors has many benefits, including:
- Improved mental health
- Strong bones and muscles
- Increased appetite
- Prolonged memory and cognitive abilities
Keep in mind that the older we get, the more our capabilities vary. Some seniors are wheelchair-bound by age 65, while others are still biking cross-country. Try not to compare yourself to others near your age, and do what makes you feel best, instead. Here are some suggestions:
- Walking outside is accessible, safe and easy to do comfortably almost year-round in Arizona.
- Swimming, although less accessible, takes stress off your joints and muscles while still working them vigorously.
- Gardening is a fun hobby that also happens to be a great form of moderate exercise.
- Yoga or Pilates can strengthen and tone your muscles while improving your flexibility.
Your overall caloric needs will decrease with age as you lose muscle mass. Despite this, it’s important to maintain the same amount of protein, vitamins and minerals in your diet as you did when you were younger. Be sure that fruits and vegetables, as well as high-protein foods like eggs, fish, meat and nuts, are staples in your everyday diet.
If you don’t think you’re getting enough of these daily nutrients, ask your geriatrician about taking supplements. Keep in mind that too much of certain vitamins or minerals can be dangerous, so always speak with your provider before starting any type of supplement plan.
As you get older, you’ll probably need to take more medications. The easiest way to keep track of your medications is with a pill box that you refill weekly. This will save you time, keep you organized and remind you when to take your medicine next. If you do forget, never double up on your doses. Just wait until the next day and continue your normal routine.
For some individuals, declining dexterity, eyesight and memory may make it difficult to uphold a regular medication schedule. It’s important that these seniors have family members, friends, neighbors or even an in-home nurse to help them stay on track.
Older adults need the same amount of sleep as younger adults — around seven or eight hours. However, getting enough rest can be difficult for seniors when factors like insomnia, aches and pains, medication side effects and sleep apnea come into play. Here are some tips for sleeping more soundly:
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bed.
- Avoid watching TV or using your cell phone before bed.
- Exercise and stay active during the day to help you sleep better at night.
For many seniors and their families, it can be difficult to distinguish between normal memory loss and conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Most people will start to show signs of mild memory loss in their late 50s or early 60s, but this usually isn’t a cause for concern.
Those who have more serious memory loss likely won’t notice it themselves at first. In most cases, family and friends will realize their loved one is frequently forgetting recent information they’d usually know — like dates, names and places. This is a good time to visit a geriatrician or memory specialist. The earlier you identify dementia, the easier it is to prolong your loved one’s cognitive ability.
To prevent memory loss, stimulate your brain every day and remain physically active. Crossword puzzles, sudoku, watching trivia shows and volunteering with a group are great ways to keep your brain healthy. Remember: if you don’t use it, you lose it!
How can you tell when your loved one should no longer be behind the wheel? Most seniors have a hard time giving up this level of independence, but the most important thing is keeping themselves and others safe. When the time comes, remember that organizations like AAA offer everything from senior seminars to driving evaluations to help ease the transition.
Talk to a geriatrician and ask yourself these questions before you make the decision:
- Is your loved one getting lost in familiar territory? If their drive to the grocery store and back feels foreign, they may need to stop driving soon.
- Does their car have any damage? They may be running into mailboxes or having trouble getting in and out of the garage, which is a sure sign for them to stay off the road.
Finally, family time becomes increasingly important with age. Seeing your loved ones regularly not only benefits mental health, but it’s also a good way for family members to gauge self-sufficiency and seek additional help if needed.
Whether you’re approaching old age yourself or are looking out for a senior in your life, it’s important to understand what geriatrics is in order to stay proactive about your health. Establishing a routine, staying active and visiting a geriatrician regularly will help older adults stay healthy and happy in every stage of life.