Aging Well

I think that when most people think of aging well, they think of what adults do to become healthy older people. Another line of thinking, which I happen to like, is that successful aging starts  in childhood (may be even in utero) as many things that occur in childhood can affect health as adults. Think of people whose mothers had rubella while pregnant with them. For those of us old enough to have gotten chicken pox rather than the vaccine, we’re at risk for shingles as adults. Severe iodine deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism and developmental delay (a more politically correct term for mental retardation). Growing up bilingual seems to protect against developing dementia, as well as having other beneficial effects on growing brains. The list goes on.

Though many people associate older age with disability and frailty, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. One thing I was taught throughout my training is that the older old (people in their 80’s and 90’s) are healthier than those in their 60s. At first this might sound counter intuitive. However, if one considers that those who are sickest die sooner, then it makes sense. The person whose only health issue is well controlled diabetes or well controlled hypertension is much more likely to reach his or her 80s than one who is overweight, diabetic with a glyco-hemoglobin of, for example, 9.5%, high cholesterol and has poorly controlled hypertension.

However, as I am assuming most if not all people reading this are adults, and as a time machine that would let people go back and vaccinate themselves against chicken pox, or somehow convince their parents to make them grow up bilingually (unless they did already)does not exist, I will limit myself to what an adult can do to age successfully. Nothing is guaranteed to prevent illness or frailty but what I suggest below does seem to help protect from or delay such things.

1. Stay Active. Our ancestors did not sit in cubicles all day earning enough money to buy food. They had to do any one of the following to get food: hunt animals, gather food, tend/harvest crops in the field or herd cattle/sheep etc. Only in the past few millennia was it possible for farmers to support a population where everyone didn’t need to be involved with procuring food/housing/etc. Not that getting food was a 24/7 job, but took more physical effort than driving to a supermarket. Even then people walked or rode horses to get places on land. Now it seems like to go more than 50 feet people drive their cars. Our bodies were made to be used. We should all be taking at least 10,000 steps a day (this comes out to walking approximately 5 miles/day).

2) Avoid bad behaviors. By this I mean, don’t do things that can shorten your life. Avoid smoking (not only is it bad for your lungs and increased your risk of lung cancer and of COPD, it raises your risk of bladder cancer, kidney cancer, esophageal cancer, raises your blood pressure and risk of heart disease). Drink in moderation (no more than 1 drink/day). Avoid any street drugs and sharing needles.  If you are sexually active and not in a monogamous relationship, use condoms. Having a discussion about your partners(‘) HIV status isn’t a bad idea either.

Don’t forget to embrace good behaviors. By this I mean not just those things I mention above and below, but also keeping any chronic diseases you have under control as best you can.

3) Be part of a community. Whether it’s a church (or synagogue or mosque), club for a hobby you enjoy, volunteering or any other activity that regularly gets you out with people, do something where you interact with people. The more positively the activity affects your community, the better. Humans are a social species. It helps keep your mind active if you remain part of a community.

4) Watch your diet. Eat healthy. What constitutes a healthy diet could (and likely will) take up a whole other blog post or two. Eat more vegetables. Cut back on meat – processed and otherwise. Eat more fish. Don’t drink to excess.

5) Be curious and educate yourself throughout your lifetime. Whether it’s people with more neural connections that end up in college and graduate school (and that is what makes people with college degrees less likely to develop dementia) or whether the education helps the neural connections stay healthy isn’t known. It could also be that the more educated someone is the more likely it is they will maintain doing healthy behaviors. In any case,  your brain is like a muscle, use it or loose it. If you have the time and inclination, learn another language. Take up a new hobby. Take a course in something you don’t know anything about. Take a refresher course in Italian (or spanish, or multivariable calculus, whatever floats your boat). If it’s another language, try and get good enough you can go to a foreign country where that is the official language and use that without having to speak English.

6) I realize not everyone has as much money as Warren Buffet or Donald Trump, but watch your financial health as best you can. If you retire, you don’t want to have to choose between a co-pay for medication or rent +/- food. If you can afford it, consider getting long term care insurance. If you need long term care, it can mean the difference between being at home with help or needed to go into a nursing home (policies are different, some might pay for nursing home stays as well).


Tough conversations and Paperwork.

Two kinds of conversations with patients are particularly tough, and sometimes related. One conversation is delivering bad news, such as the diagnosis of cancer or of a diagnosis such as HIV/AIDS. Sometimes the conversation can be tempered by a positive such as having caught the disease in an early stage, or that enough treatments are available so instead of being a virtual death sentence, it becomes a chronic disease.

The other conversation that can be difficult is talking to patients about end of life issues. Part of it is resistance as facing one’s mortality is difficult. Unfortunately people often wait until it’s too late to have conversations with family and their physician. This can put a person’s physician and family into difficult positions. By this I mean, if a disease such as Alzheimer’s has advanced enough, a patient may not be able to voice an opinion on whether he or she would want CPR, Intubation etc in the case of a heart attack. Anyone who has practiced long enough has seen patients who are unable to live independently due to dementia and have no family or other person to act as a proxy to make decisions on his or her behalf. It can take weeks or months to go through the court system to have a healthcare proxy, guardion or some similar decision maker legally assigned. In other circumstances, someone may be incapacitated by the effects of a disease, stroke, etc and unable to speak for him or herself and end up getting far more treatment at end of life than they would have wanted when they come in unconscious, unable to breath for themselves, etc and end up on a ventilator (breathing machine).

There are several ways around this. All start with conversations with family and/or friends in deciding who will be a health care proxy. There are health care proxy forms that can be filled out. Also a form known as “five wishes” is also a good place to start. The site it can be found at is aging with dignity. The first two pages act as a health care proxy form as well. The pages on the five wishes allow for more narrative as to what one’s wishes are for end of life care. Once either a healthcare proxy form or the five wishes form are filled out, they do no good if left in a drawer where no one can find them. A copy should be given to your primary care physician. Another copy should be kept in a place where you or your proxy can easily access it (preferably he or she should have his own copy as well). As circumstances arise (for example, if your healthcare proxy dies or decides they can’t/wont potentially act as a health care proxy and you appoint a new one), a new form can replace the old. However your doctor should have the updated forms for your chart.

At some point someone might decide that based on whatever set of disorders they have, that should their heart stop or that they require CPR for whatever reason that they want to be “DNR” this stands for “Do Not Resuscitate”. This often is a point of confusion when talked about in a hospital setting. This does not mean stopping treatment for cancer, heart disease, lung disease, etc. It simply means that if some’s heart stops or they stop breathing, that CPR or advanced life support measures won’t be started. There is a form such as the which is used to inform EMTs and other responders about your choice should they be called. Hospitals have their own forms that are used for inpatients.

For people with a disorder or set of disorders where one’s life expectancy is a year or less, a MOLST form can be considered. It delineates what life sustaining interventions (eg, feeding tubes, dialysis, etc) will accept.

Lastly a “File of Life form” can be filled out. I referred to this, perhaps a bit indirectly, in my last post. This is a form that can be filled out indicating whether one has a health care proxy, who that person is, where the form can be found. It also lists medical problems, medication lists, doctors’s names and phone numbers. Often they are put on the the refrigerator door so if one is unable to speak, EMTs and other responders can have important, and perhaps even life saving, information without having to search for it. Some forms are also small enough to be placed in a wallet.

Not all of these forms need to be discussed at one visit with your physician. To find them online you can search for the terms of “health care proxy”, MOLST, DNR, “file of life” and add the state you reside in for forms specific for your state.