The Senior Aging Process
Understanding normal healthy aging can help you delay, prevent or reverse your body’s signs of wear. Here are some tips about the normal aging process and potential signs of trouble.
Most people enter adulthood with healthy eyes and naturally good vision. They can safely drive without need for corrective lenses, and they can read fine print up-close without straining. Around age 40 the situation changes: Most people who previously had 20/20 vision, or only needed correction for myopia (nearsightedness), develop presbyopia or farsightedness. Here are details about presbyopia and more serious vision conditions associated with aging.
Presbyopia is farsightedness. It tends to develop in mid-life. You might first become aware of presbyopia when reading a menu or packaging and finding the need to hold it far away for focus. Farsightedness results from the lens and muscles in each eye becoming stiffer. When pliability is lower, the lens is less able to refocus from distance to near vision.
The Mayo Clinic and other leading medical advisers consider this lens change to be a natural part of the aging process. Others insist that with exercises or using pinhole sunglasses, you can train your eyes to focus at 20/20 once again. In any case, becoming farsighted is rarely a cause for medical concern. Conditions that cause much greater concern are glaucoma and cataracts.
Glaucoma involves too much intraocular pressure, or pressure inside the eye. It could be caused by too much production of fluid by the eye, or by trouble draining the fluid. The pressure can lead to blindness by damaging the optic nerve.
A person might first realize they have glaucoma when peripheral vision is reduced. However, glaucoma can reduce peripheral vision very gradually, making the problem continue undiagnosed until central vision is compromised too.
Because glaucoma tends to develop slowly, it’s wise to get a glaucoma test annually if not more often. (People with diabetes, for instance, are at higher risk and should get eye check-ups more frequently.) The glaucoma test consists of a puff of air to each eye, which lets the doctor see the pressure level.
Glaucoma can be managed or treated with eyedrops, oral medication, surgery and lifestyle changes. Diets designed to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease (see below) may help prevent glaucoma too, as both conditions might benefit from a decrease in beta-amyloid production.
Cataracts are clouded lenses. The “clouds” are made of broken-down lens tissue. Today the only treatment for cataracts is surgery.
The risk for cataracts increases with exposure of the eyes to sunlight. The risk is highest for people with lighter eyes, which helps explain why, in general, Americans who identify as Hispanic or black have lower risk than those identifying as white.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports the following based on data from 2010:
- Fewer than 20 percent of Americans have cataracts by age 40.
- About 50 percent of white Americans have a cataract or two by age 75. Within just five years, the figure jumps to 70 percent for this group.
- About 50 percent of 80-year-old black Americans and 60 percent of 80-year-old Hispanic Americans have lost vision to this condition.
Of course, a person could be “white, black and Hispanic” all in one. All humans, regardless of pigmentation and age, are advised to protect their eyes with sunglasses that screen out the rays. Avoiding excessive alcohol, tobacco and multiple corticosteroid treatments helps reduce the risk as well. To learn about other ways to prevent vision loss to cataracts, see the article at MayoClinic.org.
Tips to Protect Vision Loss
Sunglasses can be vision savers, but remember that not all sunglasses provide protection from ultraviolet rays; some only darken your view to reduce glare. It’s best to buy high quality sunglasses instead of relying on cheap alternatives. Cheap sunglasses with UVA/UVB coating might lose their effectiveness — when you wipe away smudges, you could literally wipe away the UV protection.
Regular eyeglasses may also be made to screen out ultraviolet rays.
Wide-brimmed hats are good protective measures too; they shield eyes from radiation that sunglasses cannot block. Furthermore the American Optometric Association suggests that you use sunscreen around your eyes to help prevent vision loss.
Radiation has indoor sources too, such as computer screens. Exposure to LED lights on digital devices may contribute to retinal degeneration, so using screen filters can help prevent vision loss and support normal healthy aging of the eyes.
More advice to prevent vision loss is posted at WebMD.
Gradual hearing loss may be natural with age. (Sudden hearing loss, on the other hand, is always a sign to get an examination.) The medical term for aging-related hearing loss is presbycusis. It might begin as hearing sounds as muffled, and with higher pitches being more difficult to understand. The condition is more common in men. It can be managed with hearing aids.
Statistics from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD):
- About one third of seniors age 65 to 74 have hearing loss.
- About half of seniors age 75 and up have hearing loss.
Natural hearing loss might result from a decrease in hair cells (sensory receptors) inside the ear. But hearing of course declines for different reasons, so some hearing loss is preventable. Besides maintaining a generally healthy lifestyle (e.g., avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol) you can help keep hearing loss to a minimum by protecting the ears from harmful noise. Part of the reason that older American men have more hearing loss than women their age is a higher chance of exposure to loud noise in the military, on construction sites and yes, their own garage bands. Earplugs can be effective protection.
Aspirin, antibiotics and many other factors can influence hearing too. You can learn more from Johns Hopkins Medicine.
We’ve all been there: We walk into a room, forgot why, and leave! Doctors believe that some decline in memory is part of natural healthy aging. That is, a decrease in memory power isn’t necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s or other disease. Momentary lapses are generally normal and shouldn’t be cause for concern unless they impair daily life.
A few statistics about Alzheimer’s and age in the USA:
- Alzheimer’s disease is rare in people younger than 65.
- About 15 percent of Americans age 65 to 74 have the diagnosis.
- About 45 percent of Americans 85 and over have the diagnosis.
When is memory loss a sign of health trouble? A red flag is the inability to retain new information. Episodic memory loss and trouble finding words might be precursors to Alzheimer’s (evident in the preclinical state) but aren’t always signs of dementia. You can learn more about the diagnostic guidelines at Alz.org.
Early diagnosis can help slow the progression of disease-related memory loss. Medications, sensory therapies, cognitive therapies and more may be helpful. Memory care is offered by many in-home care agencies, adult day care centers, assisted living centers and nursing homes.
What causes Alzheimer’s? Research believe that when the myelin sheath (a coating over part of nerve cells) becomes covered with beta-amyloid plaque, neurons are unable to communicate. Prevention research for Alzheimer’s suggests that Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent the buildup of this protein. Fish oil is a common source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Some vegetarian and vegan sources include:
- Black raspberries
- Canola oil
- Chia seeds
- Fig seed oil
Other nutrients identified as preventative by the Alzheimer’s Organization include:
- B vitamins (B3, B6, B12 & Folic Acid)
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Salvia Officinalis (a.k.a. sage)
Various spices such as cumin and turmeric may also be preventative as they work as antioxidants.
Staying active both physically and mentally can also help prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease. Home care workers and other senior care providers may be trained to plan recreational activities that help protect memory.
A decrease in stamina or endurance is part of normal healthy aging. Muscle tissue breaks down, and visible muscle become less toned. Muscles and organs inside the body change as well. Organs such as the heart lose their extra reserves, so physical work can feel more difficult than it did years ago.
With natural aging, stamina and flexibility are cases of “use it or lose it.” You shouldn’t overexert yourself, but remember that when muscles aren’t used, they break down. When your joints aren’t moved, they become even stiffer.
- Strength training can help offset an aging-related change in muscle tone, though it cannot completely counteract the natural course of aging.
- Walking and other aerobic exercise likewise cannot erase natural aging, but can help keep your organs functioning well enough for you to keep enjoying your usual activities as you grow older.
- Strength training and cardiovascular exercise also help keep your weight under control, which reduces the workload on your heart.
Activity isn’t everything; sleep is important to stamina too. Getting about seven hours of rest each night is important for letting the body regenerate and have good performace the next day.
When stamina is low despite your efforts at keeping active and getting adequate sleep, a doctor’s insights could be helpful. For instance, your physician might find that you have anemia. Anemia is a low count of red blood cells, and it brings fatigue to about 10 percent of people over 65 because it reduces the body’s use of oxygen. It can easily be treated with a change in diet or iron supplements.
Again, immediate attention is recommended if the change is sudden or painful. Shortness of breath, for instance, can be a sign of a heart attack.
Osteoporosis refers to weak bones. The bones lose density and become more porous, which makes them more susceptible to fractures and breaks.
Osteoporosis is more common among women than men, partly for hormonal reasons, but also because of differences in physical activity levels between the genders in older generations. Bones are strengthened by a good deal of walking, running and other weight-bearing activities. Exercising outside can also help your body make Vitamin D available for bone health, since sunlight triggers Vitamin D production. For many people sunlight is enough of a resource, but doctors advise some patients to take oral supplements.
Preventing osteoporosis also entails getting adequate amounts of calcium. Many foods are now fortified with calcium by manufacturers. Some natural sources of calcium are:
- Black-eyed peas
- Bok choy
- Sesame seeds
- White beans
Planning for Senior Care
Women may also reduce their risk of osteoporosis by choosing specific hormone replacement therapies related to menopause.
Planning for Senior Care With healthy habits and some good fortune, the human body can be a comfortable home for many decades. But what happens when a body can use assistance? Some people get by with homemaking help. Others find personal care assistance, and some get skilled nurse care.
The more you are able to pay for your senior care needs independently (versus relying on public programs), the more flexibility you will have in choosing housing and medical care. Therefore, far in advance it’s wise to make moves that grow your financial independence. For example, you can buy an annuity or long-term care insurance, or contribute more funds to an IRA.
How to pay for senior living in different situations is outlined in our various guides:
In sum, normal aging can be easier than many people expect. Normal healthy aging is gradual and subtle. People rarely turn gray overnight — and when they do, something’s not right! Pain and sudden changes are signs that medical attention is needed.
With healthy habits and regular doctor visits, you can minimize health complications and keep your senses as sharp as possible.