We all hope to stay active and independent for the rest of our lives. And as we age, most of us want to stay in the familiar surroundings of our own homes and neighborhoods for as long as possible.
A 20-year nationwide survey of people ages 45 to 74 identified five health problems that substantially boost the risk of admission to a nursing home: smoking, inactivity, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Over time, these problems contribute to many chronic illnesses that can cause disability and death, including heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and certain cancers.
What to do. Here are five things you can do to preserve your independence throughout life. Keep in mind that these changes interact and reinforce one another; the more you adopt, the greater the potential payoff:
- If you smoke, talk to your doctor about options for quitting. We all know that smoking is bad for health, but here’s a quick reminder of how bad: it’s harmful from before birth to the end of life, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease, osteoporosis, macular degeneration, and cataracts.
- Become more active. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking five days per week reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes; lowers blood sugar levels; decreases depression; and helps activate genes that clear fat and sugar from the bloodstream.
- Improve your diet through some simple changes. Add more servings of dark green, red, orange, or yellow vegetables or fruits to your daily intake, with a goal of reaching nine servings per day. And switch to healthier fats: skip trans fats, choose fewer saturated fats, and get more healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils and omega-3 fatty acids). Plant oils, nuts, and fish are all good sources.
- To get your blood pressure under control, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, and consider adopting a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and low in red meats (and other sources of saturated fats), sweets, and sodium (salt). If improved diet and increased exercise alone don’t bring your blood pressure under control, prescription antihypertensive medications may help, as long as you take them consistently.
- Talk to your primary care provider about bone mineral density (BMD) testing. All women ages 65 and over should have their BMD tested. If you’re at high risk for osteoporosis, your clinician may recommend screening at an earlier age. Be sure to get adequate calcium (1,000 to 1,200 mg per day) and vitamin D (800 to 1,000 IU per day).