Mountain View Voice

- January 15, 2010

Health tips for seniors

Everyone should know how to live well in their later years

by Dr. Minerva Catalan Navarro

Staying healthy and vibrant in our senior years is something most everyone aspires to, and there are steps you can take to improve your odds of living well as an older adult. Now that you may be retired and your children may have left the nest, you can focus more energy and attention on your health and well being.

Q: What is one of the biggest health risks seniors face?

A: One of the biggest risks to seniors' health is medication errors. In fact, one out of five hospital admissions for elderly patients is related to an adverse drug reaction.

To avoid medication errors, make sure to tell your doctor about every medication or supplement you're taking. You may not think of over-the-counter herbal supplements as medications, but they can cause adverse effects, too — especially due to a negative interaction with another supplement or over-the-counter or prescription medication.

If it is hard to remember all of the various drugs in your medicine cabinet, put all of them into a bag and take them with you to your next medical appointment. Your doctor will check the labels on the pill bottles and boxes and let you know if some might be harmful when taken together.

Seniors also tend to have more prescriptions for age-related chronic conditions, such as arthritis or osteoporosis. When one is taking several drugs at the same time, the potential for making a mistake grows. Tell your doctor if you are having trouble keeping track of all of your medication instructions.

Forgetting to take your medication as directed can have serious consequences. If needed, ask for instructions in writing, use a pillbox that organizes medication doses by day or time of day, and bring a friend or family member to your medical appointment. He or she can take notes, ask questions, clarify information and help you remember what your doctor said.

Finally, remember to return medications you no longer use or that have expired to the pharmacy for proper disposal. The fewer old or unused medications you have around the house, the less the risk of a medication error.

Q: What are safe exercises for seniors?

A: You may think that being older means being less active, but exercise is still incredibly beneficial to health. It improves balance, gait and flexibility, stimulates the brain, and provides cardiac and pulmonary benefits. In addition, it may help prevent age-related muscle loss.

Talk to your doctor about the intensity of exercise that is recommended for you based on your medical history. For most older adults, exercise programs of mild to moderate intensity that last longer are better than programs of high intensity that are short.

Remember to start your doctor-approved exercise program slow and easy. You will be able to gradually increase the amount of time you exercise as your body becomes more fit.

If you can only handle a very short period of exercise at first, do not become discouraged. The amount of time you exercise is less important than how regularly you exercise.

Your doctor can advise you on what types of exercises will best suit your abilities. However, in general, exercises such as tai chi, yoga, swimming or walking have a lower risk of sudden cardiovascular problems (such as heart attacks) and a lower risk of injury to bones and muscles than high intensity exercises, such as running.

Q: I live alone and find it tedious to cook for myself. At my age, is healthy eating really much of a concern?

A: Yes, eating a balanced diet is important at every age, and especially for seniors who are unfortunately prone to malnutrition and dehydration. It is important to talk to your doctor about the best diet for you based on any medical conditions you may have, but in general, eating a diet consisting of lean meats, whole grains, and five servings of fruits and vegetables is the nutritional key to good health.

When cooking for one, it may be tempting to use preserved foods that simplify meal preparation, such as canned soups and microwavable dinners. Unfortunately, many of these options are high in sodium.

Instead, stock up on healthy staples. Good examples include hard-boiled eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, or a small salad. Avoid making the TV your dinner companion. Instead, set a nice place setting at your dinner table and play relaxing music while you eat.

Q: How often should I see the doctor?

A: This will depend on your overall health, but in general, you should see your doctor for regular checkups — even if you feel well. There are "silent" medical conditions that don't cause symptoms but have a great impact on your health and future health risks.

Examples of such medical conditions include hyperlipidemia, which increases your risk of having a stroke or heart attack, and osteoporosis, which increases your risk for bone fractures.

Q: I've been told that at my age I should have an advance health care directive, but I don't know what it is.

A: An advance health care directive is an important document that specifies the care and treatment you want in the event that you are incapable of making your own health care decisions. You can appoint an agent or agents who have power of attorney to make care and treatment decisions on your behalf and give instructions about your health care wishes. Keep a copy of this directive in your personal files and give another copy to your doctor to be placed in your medical record.

Advance health care directives are actually important for all individuals over age 18. To get started, ask your doctor for a sample advance health care directive form. These can also be downloaded for free from many medical group Web sites and some organizations even offer free help filling them out.

Minerva Catalan Navarro, M.D., is a board-certified specialist in geriatric medicine at the Mountain View Center of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.

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