February 24, 2012

Our Health: The Concerns That Keep Us Awake At Night

As you are well aware, right behind financial concerns and questions, health is something that all of us think about as we attempt to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of a satisfying retirement lifestyle. While a cliché, the statement, "if you don't have your health you don't have anything," is absolutely true. By health I'm not talking about maintaining the energy and flexibility, eye sight and strength that you had at 30 or 40. Rather, in our context being healthy means being able to care for ourselves, enjoy friends and family, engage in physical activities appropriate to our age, and learn to manage the pains and limitations that are part of aging.

Because I am not a doctor (if I were I would have better health care!)  I am not prepared to suggest how you can live well as long as possible. What I am good at is locating web sites that will give you additional information or ways to learn more, if that disease and infirmity is one you want to know more about.

I have found lists of the major health concerns of older folks. They are remarkably similar so I trust they have captured the top-of-mind topics that might be important to you. After each, I will provide some links to web sites that can give more more information. At the end, I will provide some links to previous articles I have written that you may have missed.

I wish God had decided to design our bodies so we stay fit and healthy until the second we drop dead. But, that isn't how it works, so here are our top health worries:

#1 on all lists is heart health. The most common condition for those over 65 is some type of heart problem. We know about the negative effects of smoking, lack of exercise, or being over weight. But, what are some of the signals of problems and what can we do?

Next on the list of concerns is a stroke. According to the National Stroke Association, "A stroke or "brain attack" occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery (a blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body) or a blood vessel (a tube through which the blood moves through the body) breaks, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain. When either of these things happen, brain cells begin to die and brain damage occurs. When brain cells die during a stroke, abilities controlled by that area of the brain are lost. There are different severities of strokes, some leaving no permanent damage, others just some weakness, while major strokes affect one's ability to speak or move.

Cancer is a disease virtually all of us have some personal contact with, either because of family or friends. In particular, female breast cancer is a high profile concern, while males die way too often from prostate cancer. The number of sites that deal with cancer in all its various forms number in the millions. Here are just a few to help you get started in your own investigation.

Pneumonia and Flu are certainly not restricted to older folks. But, the consequences tend to be  more severe. In fact, pneumonia is the fifth highest killer of those over 65. Since seniors tend to have more lung problems it is often hard to diagnose pneumonia until it is advanced.

Falls and accidents around the home. Simple falls or accidents that would have no long term effect on a younger person can prove fatal to someone older. Not only does it take longer for an injury to heal, but too often other complications like pneumonia occur because of the extended time spent lying in a bed. Osteoporosis creates brittle bones that may never heal properly.

Eye issues, like macular degeneration and cataracts. This is an area of health concerns that strikes a real chord with me. My mom began to lose her sight to wet MD about 3 years before her death. Aggressive treatments with shots did not help. Within 18 months she could only tell light from dark.  As a life-long teacher and reader, losing her sight was very difficult for her. It directly contributed to her falling, breaking her leg, and forcing her to spend the last year and a half of her life in a hospital and nursing care center. Personally, I believe Macular Degeneration shortened her life by several years and destroyed the quality of the time she had left.

Unfortunately, I have only begun to scratch the surface of  health issues that affect us. I'll save a similar post for links that deal with Diabetes, Osteoporosis, Dementia and Alzheimer's, and depression. These are not cherry subjects nor ones that most of us want to spend much time with. Unfortunately, that is part of the problem. Education and awareness helps both the senior having issues and the caregivers trying to protect that person's quality of life as much as possible.

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  1. There is a new field of study called epigenetics which says that 95% of how well we age is totally in our control due to lifestyle choices. Only a mere 5% of our health issues is due to genetics.

    That being said, I know most of us, at our ages, are reaping the results of past lifestyle choices, which weren't always that educated or enlightened:) I personally feel though, that it is never too late to make healthy changes. I read a lot about nutrition and alternative health and I know that changing you diet and getting exercise will benefit pretty much everything on the above list, or prevent you from getting it at all.

    Living a healthy lifestyle gets to be a habit, like anything else. And the better you feel, the more changes you want to make.

    A guy in my tai chi class yesterday showed up with a stocking cap pulled over his eyes and he was going to go through class this way. He said "At my age, I am going to start losing my hearing so I want to practice now." How's that for a self-fulfilling prophecy?

    Personally, I don't think getting these health issues is inevitable. Even if you do get some of these things, you can certainly improve it once it's happened.

    1. My dad turns 88 tomorrow. He looks 78, is still a safe driver, is living independently, paying some of his own bills, and enjoying his life. Hearing loss, memory shortcomings, and a slight stoop in his posture are the only obvious indications of age so far.

      He has rarely exercised, eats decently, and gets enough sleep but does nothing special to maintain his health. I conclude it is genetics.

    2. Bob, it could also be that your dad was part of a vanishing generation who had less exposure to chemicals and more nutrients in their food, plus less fast food and processed foods in their diet. Our generation and the ones who come after us may not be so lucky.

    3. Bob -- I have to weigh in here, too. This is the first time one of your posts has gotten me really agitated. It is *not* necessary to accept that debility and illness have to be a part of our later years. I strongly recommend a book by John Robbins, "Healthy at 100," which makes the case that we can, at any age, experience at least some measure of success in improving our health, the key ingredients of which are eating appropriate food, keeping our bodies moving, and staying connected to other people in mutually caring ways. Will many of us still experience debility? Unfortunately yes, but this may reflect a combination of our past choices and our unwillingness to change. These changes are things that I am struggling with, but it makes so much sense. The other thing I want to add is that, while breast cancer and prostate cancer lead the pack in terms of frequency of occurrence, the leading *killer* in cancers is lung cancer, for both men and women. (I say that as a 15-year hospice nurse.) And now I will get off my soapbox... I do love your blog, Bob -- please keep up the great writing. When you get people agitated enough to comment, that's a blogger's delight!

      Pauline in Ithaca

    4. Joan,

      You very well may be right about my dad. He never had a frozen or microwaved meal until he was already in his 50's. He never snacks, though he does love dessert. His mental state is slipping (not unexpected at 88) but physically he is still doing fine. He does choose fruit, salads, and smaller portions when we meet him for lunch, which is something he rarely did when he was younger.


      I'm glad you were "agitated" enough to leave a comment and I agree completely with your comments. This post simply took a list of the top health concerns expressed by those over 65 and provided some resource links to get more information. I don't believe we necessarily become infirmed as we age. But, some of the major disease that affect us more than the younger population are out of our control. In that case, knowledge is a good thing.

      Good point about lung cancer. I hope that as smoking continues to fall farther and farther out of mainstream use instances of lung cancer will fall. There are other causes of course, but I'm sure you'd agree seniors who smoked for much of their adult life are suffering the consequences.

      Stay agitated and keep those comments coming! BTW, I went to college at Syracuse and visited friends at Cornell in Ithaca quite often. Your home is a pretty town.

  2. I have a great fear of losing my eyesight as well. There are so many good things that are linked to my pleasures- and eyesight. Thanks for the links!

    1. Eyesight is my biggie, too. I have a full exam every year. Separated retina is a concern for older folks, too. That can take your sight very quickly if not dealt with immediately.

  3. Well, that was a cheery article! Okay, not cheery, but important! If we keep these things in mind, we are more likely to make better choices about our health. We all know by this age that our health, indeed our life, can change in the blink of an eye.

    My neighbor called me a few weeks ago. She asked if I could drive her to the hospital. I rushed over to find her worried that she was having a stroke. I didn't even think about driving her anywhere. I called 911 and they were at the house within minutes. They whisked her off to the hospital. She didn't have a stroke, but she was having stroke-like symptoms. We have talked about it several times since. Sometimes these episodes can be a wake up call to make lifestyle changes that will promote better health.

    This seems like a good place to mention alternative approaches to good health along with traditional approaches. I have an excellent medical doctor, but I also go to a Chinese herbalist. The two health systems complement each other to give me a fuller range of maintenance and treatment options.

    1. Yes to exploring "non-traditional" approaches. My wife is about to give yoga a try to help her stress and flexibility. We try to avoid the "take a pill and call me in the morning" approach unless absolutely necessary. A mix of regular and alternative methods makes the most sense to us.

  4. Thanks for the resource list. We all have our own worries. Mine is cancer -- it's in my family -- but then, my philosophy is that it's not what you worry about that gets you, it's always a complete surprise.

    Anyway, I'm running off to do some ice skating -- for the first and only time this winter, partly because it's been so warm here in the Northeast and partly because I was away in your sunny corner of the country for the last few weeks doing a lot of hiking thru the desert.

    So I'm going to get some exercise -- pump up the heart, keep down the weight. Geez, I hope I don't fall!

    1. Wouldn't it be a bummer to break an ankle while ice skating? Hope you enjoy your time on ice. In reading your posts I gather you had a good time in Arizona and California. Thanks for leaving some tourist dollars behind.

      I think you are correct: we can prepare and educate ourselves against some ailment, but then something completely unexpected jumps up to bite us. That is life.

  5. Bob -- Thanks for your concern ... I survived my ice skating!

    1. I could ice skate decently while growing up in the Boston area. Later, in my 30's and living in Iowa my wife and I would skate on a frozen lake near Cedar Rapids. My only method of stopping was to aim for a snow bank.

  6. Excellent post!!! I do many of the things on this list and thank you for so many other great ideas. If do regular fitness workouts and taking healthy food in our daily meals so definitely we will able to fight against danger diseases which attack on us when we cross 50.