Keeping the Gold in the Golden Years: Staying Healthy as We Age

Taken from the March/April 2013 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

A friend says, Jan fell and broke her hip. Even though she is doing well, she is limited in her physical activities, as she must now use a cane. What can we do to better prepare ourselves for healthier aging? Part of the answer, which this article explores, lies in building and maintaining social connections, keeping physically fit, and avoiding falls.

The Importance of Connection

Talking with many of my retired friends, I am struck by how important groups and communities are in our lives as we age. Traditionally our most important community is our family. But, many of us do not live near families these days and so we find support in other groups such as our friends, social groups, volunteer groups, and neighborhoods. These connections enrich our lives by connecting us with people of similar interests and goals. We are healthier when we participate in groups — both emotionally and physically. Many researchers have found that people live better, longer, and safer lives when they are in cohesive communities.1

Even during a natural disaster, a community can save your life. The 1995 Chicago heat wave provides an example of how essential communities are. This disaster claimed the lives of over 700 elderly residents. An analysis of these deaths found that vibrant, connected, and socially cohesive neighborhoods lost far fewer of their elderly residents than did neighborhoods where the elderly were isolated. Surprisingly, the well-connected neighborhoods were no wealthier than the non-connected areas; many were low-income and run-down communities where residents lacked air conditioning and other resources. What differed between the two types of communities was that, in the cohesive areas, the neighbors knew one another and went out of their way to check on the elderly, both in person and by phone, during the heat wave. Research indicates that residents of neighborhoods that have robust social infrastructures are significantly healthier both during ordinary times and during disasters.1

This is one reason that women tend to do better than men as they age: Women tend to be more in touch with their neighbors and families and have stronger social ties than men. Retirement communities can help foster such cohesion and community infrastructure for their residents. In fact, retirement community residents live, on average, a few years longer and are healthier than older people who are isolated and disconnected from social groups.2 Senior centers can also offer this type of support since eating, exercising, and playing games together connects people. We can also create our own support communities.

Joan was undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer. Her friends kept asking, “What can I do to help you?” So, Joan set up a calendar where each of her friends could choose one day every three weeks when they were “on call” to run errands, fix a meal, take her on an outing, or just visit. Joan created her community, and her friends were grateful and felt useful. She also started a knitting group that met weekly, where she taught the others to knit. Great friendships evolved, new skills were learned, and Joan found a purpose in her life. When Joan did die, the friendships she helped establish continued and thrived.

The Importance of Exercise

Our communities can also help us stay fit in our older years.

My husband and I loved to hike, so every Sunday, we would call friends and go for a hike in the nearby mountains. It became a regular event every week with old and new friends. After my husband died, I continued to hike with my Sunday friends. They supported me as I worked through my grief and helped me stay fit. I could not have done it alone.

Getting older should not be a barrier to staying fit. If we are fit, we are better able to face the health challenges we will have later in life. In particular, there is now a significant body of evidence demonstrating the relationship between regular exercise and the prevention of coronary heart disease (which is a leading cause of death in the U.S.).3 For maximum benefits, we need to combine endurance activities and weight-bearing exercises.

Endurance activities get our heart rates up and speed up our breathing; they include running, bicycling, swimming, dancing, and brisk walking. These activities can prevent or delay chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis and improve their symptoms.4 Moving your joints can keep your body active and pain-free and can help with arthritis.

Weight-bearing exercises build bone strength by forcing muscles to work against gravity; they include weight-lifting, walking, jogging, playing racquet sports, dancing, and climbing stairs. Weight-bearing exercise can also help slow bone loss from osteoporosis.5

Maria, age 70, says, “Exercise is never a question of will I do it each day, but when will I do it. I have never felt better and know I can do most anything easily. My way of life is active and involved!  

Exercise can be anything that gets you moving, such as walking, gardening, bicycling, dancing, hiking, swimming, etc. Don’t wait until you experience a health scare or near-brush with death (like a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis) to see the value of exercise in our lives. Here is where a group can motivate us to get moving. Join a group at the gym, or gather some friends and start walking. Many senior centers have exercise groups as well.

Since I reached age 65, I find that my groups are more and more important in my life and health. I am a bicyclist and participate in a group that rides most every week and socializes afterwards. We range in age from 55 to 83. We love being together and support one another even outside our biking world. 

If you haven’t been active or have health problems, first talk to your medical provider about what kinds of exercise are safe for you to engage in. Then, start slowly, with a short (10-minute) period of light exercise or a brisk walk several times a week; and gradually increase how hard you exercise and for how long.6 Women who are disabled can do exercises to strengthen the muscles they can use, as well.

My Mom was always a slow walker when I was growing up. She was the last one home from our family walks. At age 75, she joined a university-sponsored study for older people and suddenly she started walking fast. I could hardly keep up with her and she lived to be 101 years old!

The Importance of Fall Prevention

Falling is one of our biggest challenges as we age, since our bones become more fragile and our other senses may not be as sharp as they were when we were younger. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among adults aged 65 or older, and the most common cause of non-fatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.7 Falling can cause fractures to hips, wrists, and other vulnerable bones, with recovery times that can range up to several months.

Safety precautions are always important but are especially so as we age. Here are some simple ways to avoid falls and their negative outcomes.8

  • Stay physically fit; regular exercise can keep joints, tendons, and ligaments flexible.
  • Have your eyes and hearing tested regularly since even small changes in these senses can negatively affect your balance.
  • Wear your glasses when you need them, and if you have a hearing aid, ensure it fits well and use it.
  • Talk with your doctor or pharmacist to learn the side effects of any drugs you take since some can make you sleepy or dizzy and increase your risk of falling.
  • Get enough sleep; you are more likely to fall if you are sleep-deprived.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption since even a small amount can affect one’s balance and reflexes.
  • Stand up slowly; getting up quickly can cause your blood pressure to drop and make you feel wobbly, which increases your risk of falling.
  • Use a walking stick or walker to feel steadier when you walk. Make sure they are the right size and height for you and that their wheels run smoothly if you use a walker.

Most falls we experience as we get older happen around our homes. Here are some changes we can make around our homes to reduce the risk of falling:8

  • Have secure handrails on both sides of staircases — and use them.
  • Avoid carrying things up or down stairs; if you have to carry something on the stairs, hold the item with one hand and grip the handrail with the other, taking care not to block your view of the stairs.
  • Ensure you have good lighting in your house, including on the stairs and hallways.
  • Keep your floors free from clutter that you might trip over; don’t leave objects like books, papers, clothes, or shoes on the floor or steps.
  • Check that all your carpets are firmly affixed to the floor so they don’t slip, and avoid using throw rugs or small area rugs that are trip hazards.
  • Don't let your cat or dog trip you. Know where your pet is whenever you're standing up and/or walking around.
  • Keep emergency numbers in large print near each telephone.

My sister was hosting a gathering at her house and put a lovely rug down on the kitchen floor. As I entered the kitchen, I tripped over the rug and landed on her and the refrigerator. “Oh,” she said, “I guess I better retire that rug!”

Conclusion

There are no guarantees with anything in life — but aging is a reality. We can make this time of life as good as it can be by actively protecting our health by: participating in our various communities, exercising our bodies and minds, and practicing safety in our homes and elsewhere. For more information about healthy aging, visit the National Institute on Aging at www.nia.nih.gov.


Judy Costlow, Health Promotion Specialist, is retired from the New Mexico Health Department and is a former Board member of NWHN. She walks, hikes with the Santa Fe Chili and Marching Society, bikes with the SOBs (Seniors on Bikes) and skis throughout the year sharing her adventures with friends. She also lives in a retirement community.


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References

[1] Klinenberg Eric. “Adaptation.” The New Yorker Jan 7, 2013 p. 35

[2] Sanders J, “Quality of Life in Continuing Care Retirement Communities,” II Background and Summary of Current Issues, February 24, 1997.
[3] Mayo Clinic (2023, August 17). Strategies to prevent heart disease. Heart disease prevention: Strategies to keep your heart healthy - Mayo Clinic
[4] National Institute on Aging. (2020, April 3). Real-life benefits of exercise and physical activity. Real-Life Benefits of Exercise and Physical Activity | National Institute on Aging (nih.gov)
[5] National Institute on Aging. (2022, November 15). Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis | National Institute on Aging (nih.gov)
[6] CDC. (2023, April 13). How much physical activity do older adults need? How much physical activity do older adults need? | Physical Activity | CDC
[7] CDC. (2023, September 6). Older adult falls data. https://www.cdc.gov/falls/data/index.html 
[8] National Institue on Aging. (2022, September 12). Falls and fractures in older adults: Causes and prevention. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/falls-and-falls-prevention/falls-and-fractures-older-adults-causes-and-prevention