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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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House Call: What to expect with aging and how to feel your best

The over 65 age group is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. In 2010, 12.3% of Washington state residents were 65 or older. In 2022, it was 17.1%.  (Courtesy of  Kaiser Permanente Washington)
The over 65 age group is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. In 2010, 12.3% of Washington state residents were 65 or older. In 2022, it was 17.1%. (Courtesy of Kaiser Permanente Washington)
Dr. Jeff Markin For The Spokesman-Review

Getting older is a natural part of life – and it is happening to more of us. The over 65 age group is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. In 2010, 12.3% of Washington state residents were 65 or older. In 2022, it was 17.1%.

When it comes to the aging process, we know that about 25% of what we experience is attributed to genetics, and 50% is environmental – meaning our lifestyle can make a difference. With so many of us entering our senior years, it’s helpful to understand the changes ahead, some of the myths, and steps you can take to feel your best.

The way you grow older is specific to you, but certain physical changes are common. We can’t always avoid them all, but we can mitigate the effects they have on our ability to function. We may need to adapt to changes in hearing, vision and sleep patterns. We can adjust how we eat as metabolism (how fast your body can burn calories) slows. Keeping activity and exercise up is fundamental to healthy aging but stiffness and fatigue can increase, and it can take longer to rebound from illnesses or injuries. Our memory performance and ability to learn and problem solve also decline, but this decrease in processing speed is normal, and not the same as dementia. On top of it all, our body will regulate temperature less effectively, so older adults need to look out for heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

These shifts happen in everyone who lives long enough. Let’s look at some myths about aging and steps you can take to be healthy and active as you head into the golden years.

Five common myths of aging

Myth: Heart disease is a man’s problem. Heart disease is an equal-opportunity threat. In both men and women, the cardiovascular system works harder as we age. Blood vessels lose elasticity and fatty deposits in the walls of arteries build up, forcing the heart to pump harder to circulate the blood through the body. This can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Reduce your risk with a heart healthy diet and regular exercise and by not smoking.

Myth: Creaky joints and brittle bones are just part of being older. It’s true that our peak bone mass is usually reached by around age 37 and gradually declines thereafter because bone structure including minerals and calcium are reabsorbed faster than new bone is being built. This means our bones naturally get weaker and the tendons, which connect muscles to your skeleton, get stiffer. This will decrease your strength and flexibility. For women, menopause significantly speeds up bone loss and increases the risk of osteoporosis.

The good news is that exercise and what you eat can help prevent these changes and may even reverse them. Calcium is critical for bone mass. Our best sources are milk and other dairy products, green vegetables and calcium-enriched products. A weight-bearing exercise program and regular stretching like yoga can help increase flexibility, tendon and joint resiliency, and help to decrease stiffness, pain and the likelihood of injury.

Myth: Constipation is inevitable. A common problem with age is constipation (when bowel movements become less frequent, and stools become difficult to pass). As we age, our metabolism slows and our digestive system doesn’t move food through quite as well as before. Medications and lack of exercise may also play a role. Make sure your diet includes high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. Drink plenty of fluids. Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week can increase gut motility and improve transit times, decreasing the risk for constipation.

Myth: Lack of bladder control is a normal part of aging. Age-related changes in the urinary system including less elasticity, and factors like being overweight or taking certain medications can lead to urinary incontinence, the accidental release of urine. In women having previously given birth, weakened muscles of the bladder and pelvic floor may make it difficult to empty your bladder completely or lead to stress incontinence. In men, prostatic enlargement is common and can further inhibit urine flow and capacity. Incontinence may be controlled by limiting caffeinated drinks, carbonated drinks and alcohol, eating high-fiber foods and maintaining a healthy weight. Timing voiding according to a schedule and Kegel exercises help with pelvic support and bladder sphincter strength, which has been shown to decrease incontinence in many patients.

Myth: All memory loss is a sign of dementia. It’s normal to expect some memory loss with age. As we get older, we naturally lose cells and some neuronal connections, even in the brain. With all the information your brain collects over a lifetime, it seems logical that recalling details takes more effort – occasionally forgetting where you put your keys or blanking on a name. This type of “memory problem” is more annoying than serious. Memory loss that begins suddenly or that significantly interferes with your ability to function in daily life may indicate a more serious problem, such as dementia. This condition has many other symptoms and causes, so memory problems alone do not mean that you have dementia. To protect or improve memory and mental sharpness, keep your brain active and challenged. Learn or do something new and different, like attend an educational workshop or learn a new card game. If you are worried its something more concerning, talk to your doctor and get a more detailed evaluation.

What do you need to do to feel your best as you age?

• Be physically active, as it helps to slow the aging process, improve mood, keep your body strong, and support bone mass, balance, and strength. No matter what your age or condition, there is a type of physical activity that’s right for you. Talk with your provider about the right fit.

• Protect or improve your emotional health by staying in touch with friends and family and reducing stress. Take 20 minutes a day to just relax and meditate on staying centered.

• Maintain regular doctors’ appointments, such as well visits, and stay up to date on your vaccinations, including flu and COVID-19.

• Eat a healthy, balanced diet with fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid salty foods and foods with a lot of fat in them.

• If you smoke, try to quit.

• Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your use of alcohol or other substances.

• Practice safer sex, as sexually transmitted infections can affect anyone at any age.

Aging happens to all of us, and we do have some control over the process – and that starts with good habits. No matter when you start, a healthy lifestyle can make a difference in how you feel. Don’t let these myths hold you back from feeling your best.

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