By John J. Fitzpatrick, MD: I often have patients tell me, “It isn’t easy getting old,” or “Getting old is not for the weak.” Yet I know these patients want to live for years to come. So what can be done to improve our chances of achieving a long, healthy life? There are many factors involved: genetics, acquired habits and behaviors, our attitude toward life and family, and our motivation to take steps to protect our health.
Every day in my practice, I meet people who take much better care of their car than they do of themselves. Their car would never pass 3,000 miles without an oil change, but they won’t undergo a colonoscopy to check for colon cancer at age 50.
There are some simple things we can do to “fine tune” our daily approach to life and our health. Recognize that preventive screening exams can discover problems at a much earlier stage than waiting for symptoms to appear.
For example, if breast cancer is discovered through a mammogram that finds a suspicious cluster of microcalcifications (small calcium deposits that look like white specks), a woman has an extremely high rate of being cured. If the breast cancer is not discovered until it has grown to a 3-centimeter mass with lymph node involvement, the cure rate is much lower. And if colon polyps are discovered and removed through a colonoscopy, and the patient has follow-up colonoscopies as recommended by their doctor, the risk of developing colon cancer is extremely low.
I advise my patients to have periodic health screenings, such as mammograms, bone density measurements and colonoscopies at appropriate intervals. I also recommend preventative immunizations and laboratory blood tests to identify areas of concern.
In addition to health screenings, lifestyle choices greatly influence our ability to maintain our health.
- Participate in a daily physical activity (such as walking) to maintain the muscles, joints and cardiovascular system.
- Avoid toxic substances such as tobacco, excessive alcohol and illicit drugs.
- Make healthy food choices (such as eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy) to promote a healthy weight and low cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This will keep your cardiovascular and digestive systems in good shape.
Mental attitude is also important. We must take time to decompress from the stressors of daily life. This can be done by reading a good book, taking a walk in the woods to reconnect with nature, taking a fishing trip, or just sitting on the beach to appreciate the glory of a sunrise. Staying close with our family and friends and reconnecting with those who have become distant provides a sense of warmth, security, satisfaction and love.
Don’t isolate yourself. If there are issues that are troubling you, seek appropriate assistance from healthcare or mental health professionals. Remember the phrase, “No man is an island, no man stands alone.”
By taking steps to protect your physical and mental health, and seeking help when you need it, you can achieve a healthy and productive life well into your golden years.