Due to the natural aging process, adults become more susceptible to many health conditions as they get older. To help maintain independence and promote longevity, it is important for older adults to practice certain healthy behaviors that are known to help prevent or alleviate these health conditions. Specifically, it is important to get adequate exercise, maintain a healthy diet, and take medications correctly. Additionally, older adults should try to stay socially active and stay in touch with a trusted health care provider. This article will cover strategies for succeeding in each of these domains.
If older adults do not exercise or do physical tasks by themselves, their muscles and bones may become weaker. Staying physically active has a variety of benefits, including:
Preventing or alleviating health conditions like diabetes and heart disease
The best way to reap these benefits is to do a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Many caregivers and older adults think that only certain strenuous exercises count as physical activity. This is not true, many activities such as doing errands, doing chores, gardening, and stretching also count as physical activity. The important thing is to just get your body moving each day, as this will keep your brain and muscles active. However, the best outcomes will come from doing a variety of activities that work on strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility. Health professionals such as physical therapists can provide suggestions for what activities might be best for your situation. It may also be helpful to check out local personal trainers or local gyms such as 24 Hour Fitness, Planet Fitness, and Anytime Fitness.
Following certain nutritional guidelines, like consuming fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting solid fats and added sugars, is recommended for all age groups. For older adults, there are a few more recommendations to keep in mind, such as:
Increasing protein consumption to keep muscles strong
Drinking enough fluids even if the sense of thirst decreases
Adjusting the diet if dentures make chewing difficult
Generally, older adults tend not to eat enough of two important things. The first is lean proteins such as beans, fish, and eggs. The second is fiber, which comes mainly from whole grains and vegetables. In addition, some older adults do not consume adequate levels of Vitamins D and B12. These vitamins are found in eggs and fish, but may also come from supplements. Consult a health professional for advice on which supplements may be helpful.
A healthy daily diet for an older adult should try to include all or most of the following:
3-5 servings of fruit. Where 1 serving is:
½ cup fresh or frozen berries
¼ cup dried berries or fruit
1 medium sized fruit
5 servings of vegetables. Where 1 serving is:
1 cup raw leafy vegetables
½ cup raw or cooked non-leafy vegetables
½ cup vegetable juice
3 servings of whole grains. Where 1 serving is:
½ cup cooked cereal, grains, or pasta
1 cup cold cereal
1 tortilla or slice of bread
½ bagel or english muffin
3 cups popped popcorn
1-3 servings of nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. Where 1 serving is:
1 tablespoon nut butter
1 tablespoon nuts or seeds
¼ cup cooked beans
5 glasses (12 oz) of fluids such as water, tea, or coffee
In addition to these foods, older adults should aim to consume about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds). Nuts, seeds, beans, eggs, and lean meats like poultry and fish are good sources of protein.
Remember, processed or fried foods, foods high in sodium, foods high in added sugars, and beverages like soda and alcohol are all associated with higher risk of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
A health professional can provide further dietary guidance if certain allergies, medications, or health conditions require special dietary adjustments.
It is common for older adults to take medications for multiple different health conditions. It is important for older adults to understand which medications need to be taken at what times. If the older adult has cognitive limitations that impact their ability to take medications properly, caregivers must take on this responsibility. Health professionals like physicians and pharmacists can provide guidance and answer questions regarding medication usage. These professionals can explain:
When medications should be taken
How long medications should be taken
A medication’s potential side effects
How to handle medication side effects
If a medication should be taken with food or drink
If certain medications should not be taken together
Additionally, pharmacies can typically provide the following services to make medication adherence easier for older adults:
Putting medications in pre-filled pill boxes
Putting medications in easy-to-open containers
Putting medications that will be taken together in the same packs
Putting large-print labels on medications
Mailing or delivering medications
Medication reminders can be set on mobile phones, computers, or alarm clocks. If necessary, medications can also be organized using pill dispensers. There are three main types of pill dispensers:
Pill organizers: Plastic containers divided into different compartments for different days (sometimes with sections for morning, noon, evening, and night within each day compartment). These organizers may be for one-week or one-month time spans. These are ideal for older adults who do well remembering to take their medications but want a little assistance organizing their doses just in case.
Pill boxes with alarms: Similar to basic pill organizers, but also enable you to set visual or audible reminders (alarms can usually be set to go off up to four or six times per day).
Automatic pill dispensers: A locked system programmed to notify the user and release just the right pills at exactly the right times. Some models can even send a text, phone call, or other notification to the patient or caregiver if a dose is missed.
Consider the following when selecting between pill dispensers:
Cost (Note: Medicaid covers medication management services in some states)
Is it simple to load pills?
If it's electronic, how easy is it to set the clock and alarm?
Does the clock have a large, easy-to-read display?
Are buttons labeled and simple to use?
How are the pills dispensed? (press a button, open a lid, or flip the dispenser?)
Can the dispenser be locked?
Are there different volume settings?
Can it fit larger pills or tablets?
After the age of 75, about one half of older adults have noticeable problems with their hearing. Because hearing loss normally happens gradually, it can be difficult to notice changes. A quick hearing test by an audiologist can identify hearing loss and lead to early treatment. It is important to consult health providers about hearing loss because the cause can be multifactorial. For example, hearing loss may result from wax buildup in the ear or certain medications that damage the inner ear over time. A plan for addressing hearing loss may involve hearing aids, captioned devices, or even cochlear implants in some cases.
Like hearing, vision can naturally diminish with age. It is common for older adults to require reading glasses and begin to have problems driving in the dark. Annual eye exams are recommended for all adults over the age of 60, and can be provided by optometrists or ophthalmologists. A few health conditions that may affect vision are cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy. The most common sign of these conditions is blurred vision. Adults with high blood pressure or diabetes are especially recommended to have eye exams each year, as these increase the risk for eye conditions.
All aspects of physical health (diet, exercise, medication adherence, hearing loss, vision loss) can influence an older adult’s fall susceptibility. Falls are the number one cause of injury among older adults. A serious fall can be a life-changing event for an older adult and their caregivers. Fall prevention starts with keeping muscles and balance strong by consistently doing physical activities and consuming enough of the right nutrients. If health conditions or sensory changes lessen an older adult’s balance or coordination, it is important to consult health professionals so that helpful devices or adjustments can be recommended. Fall prevention efforts may also include making adjustments to the home and keeping walkways uncluttered and well-lit. Home adjustments may include adding guide bars in bathrooms, installing ramps, or adding more lighting.
It is important for older adults to stay socially active as they age. Research has found that the harmful effects of loneliness are similar to the harmful effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Common social activities include visiting family, talking to friends on the phone, going to church, and attending events at community centers. Caregivers can help older adults stay active by creating a monthly plan of activities. For example, a special dinner with family members or a phone call with a grandchild may be planned in advance. Local seniors centers or adult day care providers may also provide a source of social involvement, offering things like intergenerational programming, which allows different generations to interact and share their experiences.
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