Health is Primary

Campaign Focuses on Healthy Aging for September

September 14, 2016 02:57 pm Chris Crawford
[Senior woman jogging across deck over lake]

As people reach their advanced years, their bodies require extra care and attention. Typically, this means maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including making good food choices and getting moderate exercise and plenty of sleep.

Family physicians play an important role in helping to guide older patients in making healthy decisions, which is why the Health is Primary(healthisprimary.org) campaign from Family Medicine for America's Health(fmahealth.org) is focusing on healthy aging for September.

To support the campaign, Health is Primary created patient handouts on staying active,(healthisprimary.org) as well as on preventive services to improve brain and body health.(healthisprimary.org) Spanish versions are available for both materials.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

George Taler, M.D., director of long-term care for MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Washington, D.C., told AAFP News the most important lifestyle choices older patients can make should be easy and fun: "Exercise your body, your mind and your social circle."

Story highlights
  • The Health is Primary campaign from Family Medicine for America's Health is focusing on healthy aging during the month of September.
  • To support the campaign, Health is Primary created patient handouts on staying active, as well as on preventive services to improve brain and body health.
  • George Taler, M.D., director of long-term care for MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., told AAFP News the most important lifestyle choices older patients can make should be easy and fun: "Exercise your body, your mind and your social circle."

"Regular exercise is perhaps the best 'tonic' and beats pills any day," said Taler, who also is a professor of clinical medicine, geriatrics and long-term care at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

Taler recommends older patients work out 30 minutes a day, either in a single session or during multiple sessions, using activities such as walking, bicycling, swimming and rowing -- which are easy on the joints while still working muscles.

"Patients should be slightly winded, but not uncomfortable," he said. "Pain is nature's way of telling you to slow down."

Late-onset hypertension and diabetes are most often correctable with weight loss, said Taler, but patients need to understand that they can't lose weight without exercise.

"Many patients who develop these conditions in their 50s or 60s can reverse the problem by losing 10 percent to 20 percent of their current weight," he noted.

In addition, Taler recommends that older patients

  • read both for pleasure and to expand their understanding of the world;
  • join volunteer organizations and clubs to do good work and learn new things;
  • stay in touch with friends and relatives, and get together with them often, to keep life interesting and fresh; and
  • travel if the opportunity is available.

Healthy Diet Tips

Taler said maintaining a healthy diet is helpful in boosting older patients' health, with a focus on portion control to maintain a healthy weight.

He recommends that patients eat meals slowly, with attention to tastes and textures, enjoying each bite until they have a sense of fullness and then stopping. Patients should adjust their portions to what satisfies their hunger, not what fills their plate.

"Your body is your best guide -- listen to it," Taler said. "The more natural and fresher the food, in general, the better it is for you."

Taler also recommends that older adults avoid saturated fats or eat them only in moderation, use olive or canola oils, and -- especially -- stay clear of refined sugars and products made with highly processed flour.

"But celebrate birthdays and holidays without guilt; just learn to cheat responsibly -- ask your doctor how," he said.

Preventive Tips

When it comes to addressing cognitive decline, Taler said although it may sound peculiar: "Good heart health leads to good brain health.

"If you work your mind like a muscle and open your heart to others, you will be healthier, stronger and happier," he explained.

The Health is Primary patient handout on preventive services for brain and body health suggests that older patients update vaccinations and get screened for various cancers, diabetes and cholesterol.

Vaccinations are the most cost-effective preventive services available, Taler noted, and patients should be encouraged to get all age-appropriate shots they're eligible to receive.

He also said screening for disease is important for patients with a family history of a particular disease or for those in an age group for which screening is recommended, but he pointed out that most screening recommendations come to an end long before patients reach the end of their lives.

"Generally, after age 75 or so, if you haven't developed any of the metabolic conditions that threaten your health, and if you have avoided the common cancers, then you are one of the lucky ones who could consider basking in your good fortune rather than hanging out in the doctor's office looking for trouble," Taler quipped.

Finally, Taler said older patients need to heed the advice the Monty Python comedy troupe once made famous. "Always look on the bright side of life," he said. "Happy people live longer and enjoy the ride."

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