In this month’s blog I will take a look at health at age 60 and older. My name is Bonnie Hill. I am a recently retired Family Physician, and married to George Dow. He asked me to write this entry because of my interest and experience in counseling individuals about their health and wellness. I am happy to share information I believe will help you to be healthier, as well as a make a few recommendations, and provide links to reputable and useful health related websites.
We tend to think about our own health when we use the word health, but our individual health is part of a complex system. It includes the health of our environment and society, as well as our life experiences, and our individual biology. As you read this, I ask you to consider how your relationships and activities impact your health and the health of those close to you, as well as the health of others. We are waking up to the realization that our health depends on community health, and ultimately on the health of our planet. We are all interconnected.
Health can be viewed three ways, according to Norman Sartorius, a renowned Croatian psychiatrist. First is the absence of illness or impairment, second is a state of health that allows the individual to adequately cope with all the demands of daily life, and third, “a state of balance, an equilibrium that an individual has established within himself and between himself and his social and physical environment.” In this article, he makes the case that our goal should be the third type of health. Using this definition, one can remain healthy even if one has a serious disease. Think Jimmy Carter.
Health of an individual includes physical, social, environmental, spiritual, financial, mental and emotional components. You might easily add to this list. You can think of these types of health like puzzle pieces—if one piece is missing, the puzzle is not complete. Some of these pieces may overlap each other, but they give us something to work with when moving toward a healthier life. And now, time to share some practical ideas for how to remain healthy after age 60.
The best bang for your buck when it comes to physical health is PREVENTION! Much of what follows is about prevention. A good place to start is by taking good care of your body by getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Take some time to read about sleep hygiene, and there may be big benefits. Caffeine, alcohol, evening screen time and lack of exercise all can rob us of quality sleep.
Of course diet is important, as well as maintaining a healthy weight. The CDC reports that hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, mental illness and body pain with activity, are all more likely when you are overweight. Several cancers are related to excess weight; uterus, breast, colon, kidney, gall bladder and liver. Make use of reliable information online and learn to read food labels. For example, 4.2 grams is in a teaspoon of sugar, and two tablespoons (one serving) of catsup contain 4 grams of sugar. A lot! You can practice by comparing breakfast cereals for sugar content and fiber. Lots of fresh foods and moderation in snack food is a great way to get started. See a dietitian or behavioral counselor if you can’t seem to change old habits.
Getting regular exercise can be a challenge, especially in winter, but it is essential for good health. Finding an exercise you actually like to do may be the biggest predictor of success, so keep trying different things until you find something you enjoy and which is sustainable. It is important to work on flexibility and strength, as well as cardiovascular exercise. Silver Sneakers health club memberships (free with your Medicare supplementary insurance) offer lots of options. Committing to a class can help you be more consistent. Thirty minutes, or more, three times a week is an excellent goal.
Vision and hearing checkups are important, too. Sometimes problems creep up on us and we don’t realize our senses are on the decline. Also, some diseases can be identified before symptoms occur, when it may be too late to do much.
And don’t forget your oral health, with regular dental visits and consistent brushing and flossing. The latest evidence does not show that flossing prevents heart disease, but it most likely is a correlation with not taking care of oneself in general. So keep flossing!
Another very important way to stay healthy is to have a primary health care provider, who will get to know you, and vice versa. That person (usually an internist or family physician, but sometimes a geriatrician, a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant) will make sure you are up to date in your preventive health care (such as screening tests and vaccines) and counsel you on things you may need to work on. They can also help guide you to specialists, if the need arises.
There may come a time when you need to talk to your doctor, religious leader, therapist or other mental health professional about your mental, emotional or spiritual health. This is especially true if you have symptoms of depression or dementia, if there is violence or substance abuse involved, or other mental health disorders. Here is a good place to start if you have questions.
Fortunately, we can do many things on our own to improve our mood, such as, spend time with friends and family, volunteer, learn new things, travel, make things, make music, and on and on. Often doing these things with others will expand our happiness, and other times doing them alone will calm and center us. Try to do some social things and some things that you enjoy alone. Look back at things you enjoyed when you were younger, for something you might want to try again.
Spiritual health for you will depend on how you define it. For some this is more likely to be a solo experience such as meditation or a walk in the woods, and for others it involves participation in a spiritual community. Talk with your friends or try out something new if you haven’t found a spiritual home and are looking for one. Many spiritual communities have small groups or other ways to welcome newcomers.
And what about financial health? Having the security of knowing you have enough savings, plus income, to enjoy your life and maintain the lifestyle you want, is important for financial health. Having more than that may allow you to contribute financially to your community health, as well as causes that promote environmental health. Knowing that we are helping others usually makes us happy.
There are many resources that can help you prepare for financial health in retirement. The Medicare.gov site shows your premiums, which are income based. The Social Security (ssa.gov) website has a calculator for predicting your payments, based on when you start them. You may already have an advisor, or you may manage your own money. Be sure your spouse, partner, or other trusted person, understands your finances. For those who wish to do it themselves, check out How to Make Your Money Last by Jane Bryant Quinn and the books by John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard. Followers of his ideas call themselves Bogleheads.
How you choose to “work” or “not work” after 60 has been covered by George in the second blog in this series, but I would be remiss in not mentioning that work can contribute to health in many ways. Work for pay, volunteer work, or working for friends or family, might add to your overall health, if the work is right for you. That is for you to decide.
Hopefully you will find a healthy path with a heart, which brings you into equilibrium with yourself, your loved ones, your community and your physical environment.
So, on that note, I wish you all good health!