Aging gracefully

What will your health look like in 40 years?

Medical science has made inroads against major diseases that snuff short our lives.  But by the time we reach 45, disease beats out accidents as the leading cause of death.

The National Vital Statistics System shows cancer is the leading cause of death for 45 to 64 year olds, accounting for 32 percent of deaths.  Heart disease follows at 21 percent, becoming the major cause of death for those who are 65-years or older.  Heart disease is the cause of 26 percent of deaths for those 65 plus; cancer accounts for 22 percent.

Death rates have generally been decreasing since 1935.  Life expectancy at birth is now an average 78.7 years, according to the most current 2011 statistics.

Statistics also show Floridians have the lowest death rate in the southeastern United States, and one of the lowest in the nation.  2011 death rates from the National Vital Statistics System show 677.1 per 100,000 died in Florida, compared to an average 740.6 nationwide.  Hawaii had the lowest death rate at 584.8, followed by California, Minnesota, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and then Florida.

So living in Florida may be an advantage.  But what else can we do to live a long and healthy life?  “The key words here are keeping your weight down, exercising within reason to your capability on a regular basis, avoiding tobacco, alcohol and drugs, [eating] a balanced diet, and trying to learn something new everyday day,”says Dr. Gordon Rafool, a geriatrician with Winter Haven’s Gessler Clinic and a Polk County Medical Association member.

We shouldn’t rely on good genes, or feel defeated by them.  “The environment does play a role in aging,” he says.  “We hear that my dad died at 50.  You’re not your dad.  Things have changed significantly in medicine.”

We need to exercise our minds as well as our bodies.  “It’s good to learn something new every day.  Try to do word games,” advises Dr. Rafool.  “Word games.  Mathematical games.  That kind of thing is extremely important.  If you vegetate in front of the television, that’s going to present more risk for depression and memory changes.”

Regular medical appointments are recommended. “The only way you’re going to know your cholesterol level and things like that is with a checkup,” he adds.

Preventing Cancer

But regular health examinations don’t just help you stay fit as a fiddle, they could also save your life.  According to the American Cancer Society, more than one million people get cancer every year in the United States.  Dr. Kris Guerrier, a radiation oncologist with Lakeland Regional Health Systems and a Polk County Medical Association member, says that early detection is key to beating the odds and surviving the disease.  “It’s important to remember that advances in how the disease is diagnosed and treated has really improved over the years,” she observes.  “But we can’t detect cancer early and help a patient if they don’t get regular health examinations.  Talk to your physician about your risk, and make lifestyle choices that will hopefully steer you clear from the disease.”  A balanced nutrition and staying active are both essential to cancer prevention.

When it comes to diet, an anti-cancer diet is much the same as the standard healthy diet.  “It all comes back to the same stuff,” says Jamie Moore, a dietitian and certified wellness coach at Lake Wales Medical Center.

Moore advises fruits and vegetables with lots of color, whole grains, healthy fats, and healthy portion sizes.  “We always suggest a variety of foods,” she adds.  “Try to get those five servings of fruits and vegetables in a day.”

Being overweight is a risk factor for many cancers, specifically breast and color cancer.  “Try to keep that weight under control. It helps,” she says.

Those who succumb to cancer need to pack in nutrition.  “It’s not the time to go out and go hog wild,” she asserts.  “Try to focus on getting dense nutrition.”

Preventing Poor Health with Better Choices

Bad habits play a role in longevity and quality of life. Illegal drugs, prescription drugs that are abused, and alcohol can affect coordination, vision and the heart, Dr. Rafool says.  Drugs and alcohol also can accelerate wrinkles.

“What it [a drug] does, it changes your metabolism.  You are more prone to having brain damage.  The cerebral thinking, personalities, they become thinner and more friable, fragile,” Dr. Rafool says.  “It also affects the blood supply to these areas.”

Smoking has been connected with cancer, but it also causes wrinkles, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems.  “A smoker is real prone to a wrinkled face,” Dr. Rafool says.

“Smoke is an irritant to your stomach, airway,” Moore adds.  “Some people just don’t seem to get that.”

Moderation is important when it comes to caffeine.  Dr. Rafool points out that too much caffeine can cause sleeplessness, tremors, and heart palpitations.

In the name of convenience, people pick up food at drive-through restaurants or eat pre-packaged foods from the grocery.  As a result, they may eat too much fat, too much salt, and too many preservatives.  “It is easier to drive through a fast food place than to go home and cook dinner,” Moore concedes.  “If you want to eat healthier, you have to plan.  It helps your budget as well.”

She suggests something as simple as reviewing grocery sales flyers and making a grocery list would make a difference.  When the food is stocked at home, you’re less likely to eat out.  “One day, when you have some time, make up a couple of things to have,” she recommends.  “Have it ready to go.”

Don’t believe you can just burn extra calories you consume.  “It takes a lot of exercise to burn up indiscretion in your diet,” she cautions.

Preventing Acute or Chronic Pain

As people age, pain may affect their quality of life.  The most common type is an aching back from arthritis,says Dr. Osman Latif,a board-certified pain management specialist with Lakeland’s Watson Clinic and a Polk County Medical Association member.  Arthritis sufferers also commonly have pains in the neck, knees, and hips.

“It’s good to walk and stay active, but we don’t want them doing things where there’s a lot of rapid rotation of the spine,” Dr. Latif says.  “They don’t want to use their back like a crane, leaning forward and lifting and twisting their back at the same time.”  Moving furniture, trimming hedges, and aggressive mopping are not advisable.

The good news is, there’s a lot that can be done at home to alleviate acute pain.  “Don’t panic.  Sometimes people get anxious and that leads to a vicious cycle,” he says.  “Also, moist heat.  That’s a great thing.”

Over the counter analgesics and creams may provide relief as well.  Braces can lead to deconditioning, so in general he doesn’t recommend them.

If pain persists, if there is weakness in the legs or a neurological problem, Dr. Latif observes that a doctor can do imaging to investigate further.

Moore suggests keeping weight under control will make arthritis less painful.  Those with severely disfigured hands may need help from organizations like Meals on Wheels, which supplies hot nutritious meals daily to the homebound, and supplemental drinks.



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