The Medical Minute: Senior health and fitness

May 28, 2004

By John Messmer, M.D.
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

National Senior Health and Fitness Day was held earlier this week. If you do not count yourself among the senior members of society, that's OK -- one day you will be. For now, this may apply to your parents.

The human body is like a fine machine, but like machinery, as we age we are more likely to have physical problems. Unlike an old car, however, our bodies can adapt and grow stronger and there is much we can do to minimize the effects of the aging process. The most important thing to consider is exercise. It's never too late to begin to improve fitness. Studies on elderly people who do strength training show they have fewer falls. Strength training with weights builds bone strength and reduces the risk of fractures due to osteoporosis. Vigorous activity like brisk walking, cycling or swimming increases stamina, improves mood and helps with sleep. Even with arthritis, a gradual program of exercise helps joint function and reduces pain.

Appetite is reduced in older ages and some people may not take the time to prepare a balanced meal, especially if they are preparing a meal only for themselves. Low nutrition, calorie dense snacks are easier to eat than fruits, vegetables, grains and lean meat and fish. This can result in a person being overweight but malnourished -- outwardly the person looks well fed, but inside the person is nutrient deficient. Poor nutrition can contribute to vitamin and iron deficiency while increasing the likelihood of infections.

Reduced eyesight and hearing can combine to isolate an older person. Overcoming these problems may be as simple as having cataracts removed or fitting a hearing aid. Good nutrition, avoidance of ultraviolet light and loud noises in childhood and early adult years can reduce the risk of these problems developing.

Two-thirds of people over 65 take at least one drug with about 15 percent taking five or more. The risk of drug interactions increases as the number of drugs used increases. Many people assume every doctor involved in their care keeps every other doctor informed about current prescriptions. That would be ideal but is technically difficult to do with our current system and privacy rules. Consultants change and each doctor may not be aware of every other doctor involved in a person's care. An easier way is to have a primary care physician, one doctor who can keep track of what other doctors are doing. It's a good idea to take along ALL medications, drops and creams to every regular visit with a primary care physician who can look for conflicts, duplicates, dosage problems, drugs that are potentially dangerous in the elderly and to assist in dosing schedules.

Blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar control is just as important in older people as in youth. Even 90-year-olds should have normal blood pressure and cholesterol. This can be tricky and the actual goal numbers will depend on many different factors. Even though life expectancy at age 90 is less than at age 65, the risk of disabling diseases can be reduced with appropriate evaluation and treatment.

If you thought immunizations were just for kids, think again. Older adults commonly do not have current tetanus immunity. A tetanus booster every 10 years reduces the risk of lockjaw, an admittedly rare disease, but one which can be picked up from a minor wound contaminated with soil. A vaccination against pneumonia caused by the Strep organism is important for anyone over 65 and for those over 50 with diabetes, heart or lung disease, kidney disease or problems that can affect the immune system. Influenza vaccine is needed annually. Fortunately, Centers for Disease Control statistics show the rate of immunization is increasing.

Even when health is at its best, all of us will die eventually. End-of-life planning too often gets neglected. It may be difficult for families to confront this sensitive issue, but advance planning can save much heartache. Will you be able to care for the home you have lived in five or 10 years from now? If your children are older, you may not be able to rely on them to help you. Who will speak for you if you are incapacitated? Prepare a living will and medical power of attorney before it's needed.

It's never too late to work on your health. Good health is possible for every age group.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009