10 Ways to Stay Healthier Beyond Age 65

By Patricia Barry

Copyright © 2015 AARP

Nobody really feels “old” at 65 anymore, and many can expect to live for another 20 years or so after that, with an ever-growing number of Americans (more than 53,000 at the time of the United States census in 2010) getting to see 100 candles on their cakes. The prospect of increased longevity is great, as long as you stay healthy enough to enjoy it.

Taking action to avoid falls

Making sure not to fall is about the best thing you can do to keep your independence and prevent costly medical treatments. Falls lead to around 9 million visits to the emergency room and cause about 25,000 deaths each year, according to the National Safety Council. Yet experts say that many of these tumbles can be avoided in very simple ways, as follows:

  • Wear sensible shoes that fit properly and don’t slip.

  • Clip your toenails (or have them clipped) regularly.

  • Have your vision checked regularly and keep your eyeglasses clean.

  • Remove loose rugs or use adhesive tape to make them non-slip.

  • Use non-slip mats in the tub or shower.

  • Keep packaged or canned foods and kitchen utensils within easy reach.

  • Repair worn carpeting or floorboards.

  • Keep walkways and stairs well-lit and clear of objects you may fall over.

  • Paint the lowest step a different color or line the edge with colored tape.

  • Practice exercises designed to improve balance and muscle strength.

Medicare doesn’t cover these costs. If you need to have work done but have a low income, contact Rebuilding Together, which provides volunteers to make repairs and modifications or install safety measures free of charge. Call 800-473-4229 for local information.

Exercising regularly

Regular exercise has extraordinary benefits. Apart from slimming you down, it can reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol and lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and breathing problems. For many people, it can do a better job than the prescription drugs designed to treat these same conditions — without the costs or unwelcome side effects.

Another benefit of exercise is that it gives you a lot more energy and better sleep. And it strengthens your bones, tones your muscles, and improves your balance — in other words, greatly reduces your risk of falling.

Quitting smoking

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable illness — heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung disease, and cataracts of the eye — and is responsible for an estimated one-fifth of deaths in the United States each year.

Studies show that the risk of heart attack declines 50 percent within one year of quitting, and within five years the risk of cancer begins to approach that of a person who’s never smoked, according to the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention at the University of Wisconsin.

And the Society for Vascular Surgery claims that within only 48 hours of quitting, blood pressure and pulse rate drop, nerve endings in the lungs start to regrow, the ability to smell and taste improves, and carbon monoxide in the blood returns to normal levels.

Eating healthfully

More and more, medical science is finding solid evidence for the old idea that you are what you eat. Food has an enormous impact on health, for good and for bad. Researchers investigating longevity in certain places around the world, where people typically enjoy very long lives, usually find that the subjects’ meals are small but rich in fruit, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and nuts. Yes — the exact opposite of an American fast-food diet, with its emphasis on red meat, saturated fat, processed foods, sugar, and super-sized everything.

To eat healthfully and lose weight, you don’t have to give up everything you like or keep rigidly to some lettuce leaf diet that you’re bound to break after a while. Just pay attention to what you’re putting in your mouth every day and eat less of it. Avoid food that’s heavy on calories but low in nutritional value, such as fried foods, processed meats, white bread, and white rice. Look more closely at food labels, because some marked “low-fat” are actually loaded with salt or sugar, which can also cause serious health problems.

Cutting out soft drinks and extra sugar

Dangerously high levels of sugar and high fructose corn syrup in sodas and other soft drinks cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, gout, and many other health problems, according to a multitude of medical studies. Just one 20-ounce soda contains the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest — far more than the daily maximums recommended by the American Heart Association of 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men.

Reducing your intake of soft drinks — or better still, eliminating them altogether — is one of the easiest ways to lose weight and get healthier. Also try to avoid some salad dressings and processed foods that contain more sugar than you may think. Good news, though: Dark chocolate may be good for you! Providing that it contains at least 70 percent cacao, dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure and may help combat heart disease by preventing the hardening of veins and arteries.

Keeping an eye on prescription drugs

Three-fourths of Americans over age 60 take at least two prescribed drugs, and more than a third use at least five, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Often these meds do a great job keeping people healthy and functioning. But the sobering fact is that serious side effects from medications send more than 4.5 million Americans to a doctor’s office or emergency room each year and are the fourth leading cause of deaths in hospitals.

Not all bad effects of drugs cause dramatic results and trips to the emergency room, but for that reason they can be harder to recognize. For example, they may affect your balance or vision (making falls more likely), disturb sleep, and cause depression and memory loss. Medication experts say that if you experience such symptoms, doctors should regard the drugs you take as the prime suspects in detecting their causes. That’s partly because new drugs are rarely tested on older people or people who have several medical conditions.

Continuing to work or stay active

An increasing number of Americans stay employed beyond age 65, but the jury is still out on whether people who continue to work function better than those who retire. Many studies suggest that those who work are more agile mentally and have better memories, but it’s unclear whether this observation is a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Does working cause those benefits, or do people who already have them tend to stay working longer?

Staying connected and engaged

Time and again, research shows that older people who routinely connect with other people — families, friends, and folks in the community — remain physically and mentally agile far longer than those who become isolated. Studies have even found that joining choirs and singing groups can strengthen seniors’ immune systems, reduce stress and depression, and just make them feel better. Similar results are found among people who volunteer in the community and regularly interact with grandchildren or other youngsters.

Keeping your brain in shape

Momentarily forgetting your keys, your glasses, your neighbor’s name, and the reason you just came into this room — that kind of short-term memory loss is a normal part of aging and doesn’t mean you’re getting Alzheimer’s. But you may be wondering whether you can do anything to avoid or stave off this and other dreaded mental diseases that are associated with getting older.

Nobody yet knows exactly what causes Alzheimer’s and similar dementias or how to cure them or avoid them. Certainly, mental exercises like solving crosswords, Sudoku, and other puzzles may well help keep your brain in working order, and anyway, they’re fun.

Addressing tough choices before they’re necessary

When should you quit driving, move in with family members or into assisted living or long-term care, make a living will, and appoint someone as your power of attorney? These are all difficult issues for anyone to confront, but experts say discussing them sooner rather than later with family members or close friends is best. Some issues, such as quitting driving at the right time or deciding to stop living alone, may play a direct role in preserving your life and health. Others, such as making a living will, can bring peace of mind.

Having a game plan that you’ve worked out when you’re still relatively fit makes necessary decisions easier for you and your caregivers later on. That way, you can be more confident that your wishes will be carried out even if there comes a time when you can no longer make decisions.