By Samantha Costa Dec. 8, 2015 | 9:11 a.m. EST
There are three things that are inevitable about growing older, says Jim Firman, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging: “Death, taxes and chronic conditions.”
By 2050, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the number of baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – who are 65 or older will reach 89 million. That’s almost double the number of older adults that were living in the U.S. in 2010, according to the 2013 State of Aging Health in America report. As more people live longer, they’ll need to start paying attention to their health before they’re grappling with a chronic condition – or a few, experts say.
In October, a MDVIP Boomer Health Survey of more than 1,000 baby boomers showed that almost half say it would take an unexpected life-threatening diagnosis to motivate them to take better care of themselves. And while 94 percent say preventive care is important, 3 in 4 agree they should be doing a better job managing their health.
“People understand the importance [of managing their health], but they don’t seem to have the motivators in their life to make the change. And they need help with that,” says Dr. Bernard Kaminetsky, medical director and founding physician for MDVIP, a national group of more than 800 primary care physicians.
The chronic conditions that pose the greatest risk for death among baby boomers are stroke, lung disease, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, according to the CDC. And many of those cases could be prevented: “Ninety percent of health is not what happens in the doctor’s office,” Firman says. “It’s what people do or don’t do in their everyday life.”
Ways to Age Well
Regular checkups. The MDVIP survey says the top three frustrations boomers had about visiting their primary care provider were wait times, the limited amount of time spent with the doctor and the struggle of trying to set up an appointment. Many boomers said they felt like their doctor didn’t take the time to really get to know them. And for most, visiting a primary care provider seemed like a chore.
“It can be discomforting to go to the doctor,” Kaminetsky says. “People often don’t want to confront a problem until it’s obvious and hitting them in the face. Ignorance is bliss. Who wants to deal with the responsibility of having a chronic illness?”
Kaminetsky says this element of denial affects many boomers who have otherwise been healthy their entire lives. But it’s still important to make that appointment, says Dr. Marie A. Bernard, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health. “You should certainly see a health care practitioner on a regular basis to get preventive health interventions,” she adds.
Exercise every day. Exercising is almost always a barrier for older adults, especially if they haven’t been exercising their entire lives. The idea of starting in your 50s and 60s can be difficult. “We all know what we should do. We know that we should exercise more. However, what we learned about exercise in high school isn’t appropriate now,” Firman says.
The National Council on Aging’s Go4Life program offers older adults ways to safely exercise – from the most basic stretches to jogging. The group encourages four basic categories of exercise: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. Endurance activities include brisk walking or jogging, yard work such as mowing or raking the lawn and dancing. Strengthening exercises such as lifting weights, using a resistance band and using body weight to make muscles stronger are outlined in easy how-to guides. For better balance, try standing on one foot, walking heel-to-toe or practicing tai chi. Between these exercises, make sure to stretch the shoulders, upper arms and calves.
Aim to spend at least 30 minutes doing moderate exercise five days a week, Firman says.
Quit smoking and limit drinking. The CDC says your risk for a heart attack drops sharply just one year after you quit smoking. After two to five years, your chance for stroke could decrease to that of a nonsmoker’s risk. Speak to your doctor if you’re trying to quit smoking, Bernard says. There are medications and support groups to help you along the way.
Bernard also suggests limiting excessive drinking. As you age, the long-term effects of drinking can surface, including liver disease, high blood pressure, stroke and some cancers. Plus, certain prescription medications for chronic illnesses don’t mix well with alcohol and can even be life-threatening.
Ask for support. If you need help navigating the complex issue of aging or adopting healthier lifestyle choices, don’t be afraid to ask or look into programs like Go4Life. Being diagnosed with a major illness is scary. Reach out to family for support, or consider speaking to a life coach or personal trainer. Check out the Center for Healthy Aging for local programs near you.