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Getting older is a natural
part of life. How you will feel as you get older depends on many things,
including what health problems run in your family and the choices you make. If
you take good care of your body and learn positive ways to deal with
stress now, you can slow down or even prevent problems
that often come with getting older.
It's never too early or too
late to change bad habits and start good ones. No matter when you start, a
healthy lifestyle can make a difference in how you feel and what you can do.
The changes you'll go through as you get older depend on a
number of things. One is your family history (genetics). If your family members
have diseases or ongoing (chronic) health problems like high blood pressure or
diabetes, then you may have a greater chance of having those problems yourself.
But just because your risk is higher, it doesn't mean you will definitely have
the same problems. In fact, the lifestyle choices you make can help reduce your
chances of getting illnesses that run in your family. And even if you do get a
family illness, choosing to be physically active, to eat healthy foods, and to learn
how to deal with stress can keep the illness from destroying your ability to
enjoy your golden years.
Changes as you get older are usually gradual. Certain physical changes
are common. Your metabolism (how fast your body can burn calories) slows over
time, which means that your body needs less food energy than before. How much and how well you sleep will likely change. Most
people start needing reading glasses around age 40, and many have some
hearing loss later in life. Starting in your 50s, bone aging increases. Also
starting around age 50, you may notice changes in sexual function—it's normal
to have a slower sexual response.
Most vital organs gradually
become less efficient with age. The kidneys are less able to keep enough water
in your body. And the heart can start to show signs of wear and tear. So as you get older, it's
important to be physically active, drink plenty of water, and choose healthy
foods. Doing these things will help your body work well for a longer period of
One of the most important things you can do for your health at any age is
to be physically active. Physical activity keeps your body strong, and it helps
with how you feel. People who stay active are less likely to get depressed.
Physical activity can be anything from walking to gardening to working out at
the gym. The important thing is to be active almost every day. No matter what
your age or condition, there is a type of physical activity that's right for
you. Always ask your doctor whether it is safe for you to start a physical
Your mental and emotional health are also
important. Protect or improve your emotional health by staying in touch with
friends, family, and the community. People who feel connected to others are
more likely to thrive than those who do not. And try to keep stress at a
minimum. In addition to getting regular physical activity, you can take charge
of how stress affects you by taking 20 minutes a day to just relax.
To protect or improve your memory and mental sharpness, keep your brain
active and challenged. Learn or do something new and different. For example, attend an educational workshop or learn a new card game. Depression can be a serious problem for older adults. If you think you
may be depressed, seek help—antidepressant medicine and counseling can help
Other good health habits can help you stay at
Learning about healthy aging:
Ways to stay healthy while aging:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
As your body ages, you can expect
gradual changes, at your body's own pace. How your body ages depends in part on
your family (genetic) patterns of aging. But your lifestyle choices have a more
powerful impact on how well your body ages. Fortunately, you can control your
of the following changes may apply to you. Others may not. A healthy lifestyle may slow
many of these normal effects of aging.
age, the skin becomes less elastic and more lined and wrinkled. Fingernail
growth also slows. The oil glands gradually produce less oil, making the skin
drier than before. You can slow skin aging by using moisturizer and protecting
the skin from the sun with sunscreen and sun-protective clothing, such as a hat
Hair. It's normal for hair to
gradually thin on the scalp, pubic area, and armpits. As hair pigment cells
decline in number, gray hair growth increases.
Height. By age 80, it's common to have lost as much as
2 in. (5 cm) in height. This
is often related to normal changes in posture and compression of joints, spinal
bones, and spinal discs.
time, changes in the ear make high-frequency sounds harder to hear and changes
in tone and speech less clear. These changes tend to speed up after age
Vision. Most people in their 40s
develop a need for reading glasses as the lenses in the eyes become less flexible (presbyopia). It's also
normal for night vision and visual sharpness to decline. Also in the later years, glare
increasingly interferes with clear vision. Vision changes can affect your ability to drive safely. For more information, see:
Sleep. Changes in sleep and circadian rhythm occur as you age. You will probably sleep less at night, and you may not sleep as deeply as you did when you were younger. And it's more likely that you'll wake up during the night and/or wake up earlier in the morning. For more information, see the topic Coping With Changing Sleep Patterns as You Get Older.
Bones. Throughout adulthood, men and women
gradually lose some of the mineral content in their bones. The bones get less dense and strong.
You can slow natural bone loss and reduce
your risk of
osteoporosis by getting regular, weight-bearing
exercise (such as walking), getting enough calcium and vitamin D, and avoiding
lifestyle choices that weaken bones (such as smoking).
Your doctor may also recommend a bone-protecting medicine. For more
information, see the topic
Metabolism and body composition. Over time, the body typically needs less energy,
and your metabolism slows. Hormone changes in the aging body result in a shift
to more body fat and less muscle mass. The best approach to managing these
changes is to take in fewer calories while keeping up or increasing your
physical activity. Strength training is an especially good way to build or keep
your muscle mass. When your muscle mass is reduced, your metabolism slows down.
Building or keeping your muscle mass allows your metabolism to remain the same
Brain and nervous system.
Starting in the third decade of life, the brain's weight, the size of its nerve
network, and its blood flow decrease. But the brain adapts to these changes,
growing new patterns of nerve endings. Memory changes are a normal part of the
aging process—it's common to have less recall of recent memories and to be
slower remembering names and details. You can help keep your brain sharp. Engage in
regular social activity. Challenge yourself to learn and do new things. And be physically active, to increase blood and oxygen flow to the
Heart and blood circulation. The
heart naturally becomes less efficient as it ages, and your heart has to work a
little harder during activity than it did in the past. This makes the heart
muscle a little larger. You'll notice a gradual decline in your energy or
endurance from one decade to the next.
Lungs. In inactive people, the lungs become less efficient
over time, supplying the body with less oxygen. Regular physical activity plays
a key role in keeping your lungs strong.
Kidneys. With advancing age, the
kidneys decline in size and function. They don't clear
wastes and some medicines from the blood as quickly and don't help the body
handle dehydration as well as in the past. This makes it increasingly important
that you minimize the
toxins, alcohol, and unnecessary medicine that you
take in, and that you drink plenty of water.
Urinary incontinence. Age-related changes in the urinary
system, decreased mobility, and some medicine side effects can all lead to
urinary incontinence. This does not have to be part of
normal aging, so talk to your doctor if urinary incontinence is affecting
Sexual function. Men and women produce
lower levels of hormones starting in their 50s. Men produce less sperm, and
their sexual response time slows.
Women stop ovulating and have a number of
menopausal changes linked to lower
estrogen production. For more information, see the topic
Menopause and Perimenopause.
Physical activity builds physical
vitality. With every year of your life, you have more to gain from being
On a daily basis, being physically active improves your quality of life
by improving your:
As you get older, an inactive lifestyle increases your
risk of chronic disease. Conversely, getting regular aerobic exercise is one of
your best defenses against diseases, such as:
If you already have a chronic disease, becoming
physically active may reduce your need for medicine to treat or control
If you've been inactive for awhile, you don't necessarily have to set
your sights on becoming athletic—your first
goal is to simply start moving more each day. Before
you do, though, get off to a smart start by seeing your doctor for a full
physical examination. Then you can follow his or her recommendations as well as
these guidelines for becoming more physically active.
After a few weeks of regular physical activity, you will
probably feel better than before. When you're ready for more, add some variety
to your activity schedule with new ways to build flexibility, aerobic fitness,
and muscle strength. Experts say to do either of these things to get and stay
It's fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more
throughout your day and week. You can choose to do one or both types of
If you are just starting a fitness program or if you are
age 65 or older, talk to your doctor about how often is safe for you to be
Even if you're happy with your fitness routine, it's a
good idea to periodically stop, think, and rework your activities and goals. As
age-related issues gradually enter into your fitness equation, keep the
following things in mind.
Emotional and mental
vitality are closely tied to physical vitality—just as your mind has powerful
effects on your body, so your physical state affects how you feel and think.
Social contact can also make a big difference in how you feel.
Replacing a "lost" activity is a key to staying active and feeling good
about yourself. For instance, if you can no longer run, you might try walking,
biking, and/or swimming. And if your favorite activity was dancing, you might
try something else that combines social and physical activity, such as joining
a water aerobics class. Replacing lost activities can help you keep a positive
attitude and sense of well-being over time, even if aging and changes in your
health mean you can not do all the things you used to do.
Protect or improve your emotional and
cognitive health with regular physical activity. While
physical activity produces chemicals in the body that promote emotional
well-being, inactivity can make
stress worse. Research has been done to link physical activity and the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. Adults who are physically active may be less likely to get Alzheimer's disease or dementia than adults who are not physically active.2
Social activity. Protect or improve your emotional
health by staying in touch with friends, family, and the greater community.
Whether physically healthy or ill, people who feel connected to others are more
likely to thrive than those who are socially isolated. Volunteering in your community and sharing your wisdom and
talents with others is a gratifying and meaningful way to enrich your life.
Mental activity. Protect
or improve your memory and mental sharpness by:
Stress reduction and relaxation techniques. Too much life stress can take a toll on your body, your
mind, and the people who are closest to you. In addition to getting regular
physical activity, you can take charge of how stress affects you by taking 20
minutes a day for relaxation time.
Positive thinking. Positive thinking
may help you live a longer, happier life. Even if you tend to be an
optimist, there are times when it takes extra effort to frame your life
positively. Take the following steps to harness the power of positive thinking
in your daily life.
Because sexuality tends to be a
private matter, it's likely that you've heard less about sexual change than any
other element of aging. Fortunately, the news is good—for most healthy adults,
pleasure and interest don't diminish with age. Most people are sexual
throughout their lives, with or without a partner, and some feel greater sexual
freedom in their later years. On the other hand, some men and women are content
to be sexually inactive.
Around age 50, men and women typically
begin to notice changes in their sexual drive, sexual response, or both. Like
so many other physical changes that evolve over time, these aren't signs that
you are losing your sexuality. Rather, these changes are simply something to
adjust to and discuss openly with your partner and/or your doctor.
As you age beyond
your 50s, you may find that:
androgen levels drop, causing physical changes. You
may find that:
If you have noticed sexual changes that don't seem to be
linked to normal aging, talk to your doctor. There are a number of
medicines that can cause sexual problems, as well as
health conditions that can cause sexual problems.
little experimentation and patience, you can adjust to sexual changes and
satisfy your sexual and intimacy needs. If you think your sexual interest might
be affected by a medicine or health problem, work with your doctor to correct
or treat it. Talk with your partner about any misgivings you might have so you
can handle them together.
With your partner, take your time to
set a relaxed mood and engage in foreplay. Use a lubricant if vaginal dryness
or irritation is a barrier to enjoying sex. If you drink alcohol, remember that
a small amount may relax you and increase your responsiveness, but too much
alcohol is not likely to be helpful.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
are a risk no matter what age you are. Unless you and your partner have
recently been tested or you are 100% sure that you both have been monogamous
for many years without infection, make sure that you
practice safer sex to prevent STIs. For more information, see the topic Safer Sex.
As you get older,
good nutrition plays an increasingly important role in how well you age. Eating
a low-salt, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and fiber can
actually reduce your age-related risks of
osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases. By eating a
wide variety of foods, you can pretty easily get what your body needs,
As you take a look at your daily diet, remember that as you
People who are underweight or frail have low reserves for bouncing back after an
illness or injury. In the later years, this can lead to permanent ill health or
disability. If you have trouble keeping your weight up, it's critical that you
take special measures to build your weight, energy, and resilience. Every day,
follow your doctor's recommendations and:
If you are having trouble getting the food you need because of transportation, financial, or health problems, ask your
doctor about local meal programs. Most communities have Meals on Wheels
programs that can deliver food to your door. And there are meals at churches and
community centers that can nourish your needs for both food and social
prevention, regular checkups, and prompt treatment play a key role in your
quality of life as you age.
Your grandparents' generation had few
protections from life-threatening conditions, but you now have the advantage of
immunizations and regular screenings. Screenings and immunizations may help you live a longer,
higher-quality life. But there comes a time when some screening tests won't be helpful, so talk to your doctor about which tests to have.
To learn more about recommended health screenings, see
Health Screening: Finding Health Problems Early.
For more information, see the
Interactive Tool: Which Health Screenings Do You Need?
Be an informed health care consumer. When you are concerned about a medical condition,
read as much as you can about it and its possible treatments. Make a list of
unanswered questions and talk to your doctor about them. Explore all treatment
options before deciding how to treat a problem. And get at least one second
opinion if you're considering a surgery, medicine with dangerous side effects,
or experimental treatment.
For more information, see:
Be your own best health advocate. Make it your goal to work in
partnership with your doctors. In general, people who make health
decisions with their doctors are happier with the care they
receive and the results they achieve. It's important to share in every decision
about your health. The decisions you make influence your overall well-being as
well as the quality and cost of your care. Whenever you have a medical
For more information about how to work in partnership
with a doctor, see:
Get organized. Feeling organized and in control of your health
care can be a challenge, especially when something comes up unexpectedly. Your
best approach to managing your health care is to get organized now—create a personal
medical information file, including an ongoing record of your:
For more information on how to organize your medical
information, see the topic
Organizing Your Medical Records.
Advance directives such as a living will and a medical
power of attorney can ensure that you will get the care you want if you become
physically or mentally unable to make your own medical decisions. A living will
states your wishes about your medical care. A medical power of attorney gives a
person you choose (your health care agent) the authority to make medical
decisions for you if you become unable to make these decisions for yourself. In
addition to putting your advance directives in writing, also be sure to clearly
communicate your choices to all family members who might be involved in your
health care in the future.
For more information, see:
AARP is a nonprofit organization that promotes quality of life for people ages 50 and older. Its website has information about health and family issues, medicine costs, finances, and more. AARP
advocates at the national, state, and local levels and provides opportunities
for service and involvement.
This government website offers the latest aging-related
policy and Medicare information, as well as links to health information. There is also a link to check for programs in your area that provide services for older adults and their families.
website provides health information for older adults and caregivers, relevant health
statistics, and links to many aging-related websites.
This website for older adults offers aging-related
health information. The website's senior-friendly features include large
print, simple navigation, and short, easy-to-read segments of information. A
visitor to this website can click special buttons to hear the text aloud, make
the text larger, or turn on higher contrast for easier viewing.
site was developed by the National Institute on Aging and the National
Library of Medicine, both part of the National Institutes of Health
(NIH). NIHSeniorHealth features up-to-date health information from NIH. Also,
the American Geriatrics Society provides independent review of some of the
material found on this website.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/default.aspx.
Wang L, et al. (2006). Performance-based physical function and future dementia in older people. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166(10): 1115–1120.
Ott A, et al. (2004). Effect of smoking on global cognitive function in nondemented elderly. Neurology, 62: 920–924.
Other Works Consulted
American Geriatrics Society (2011). Safe sex for seniors. Available online: http://www.healthinaging.org/resources/resource:safe-sex-tips-for-seniors.
Depp CA, et al. (2009). Successful aging. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 4245–4258. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Dunkin JJ (2009). Psychological changes with normal aging. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3981–3988. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Krystal AD, et al. (2009). Sleep and circadian rhythm disorders. In DG Blazer, DC Steffens, eds., American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Geriatric Psychiatry, 4th ed., pp. 395–408. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
McArdle WD, et al. (2010). Physical activity, health, and aging. In Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance, 7th ed., pp. 831–875. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
National Osteoporosis Foundation (2010). Clinician's Guide to Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis. Available online: http://www.nof.org/professionals/clinical-guidelines.
Sewell DD (2009). Sexuality and aging. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 4235–4245. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Wallace M (2010). Older adult. In CL Edelman, CL Mandle, eds., Health Promotion Throughout the Life Span, 7th ed., pp. 619–647. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
Wellman NS, Kamp BJ (2012). Nutrition in aging. In LK Mahan et al., eds., Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 13th ed., pp. 442–459. St Louis, MO: Saunders.
May 29, 2012
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Carla J. Herman, MD, MPH - Geriatric Medicine
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