There are many changes that come with getting older, but your good health doesn't have to be one of them. Even if your genetics or family history puts you at risk for certain conditions, practicing healthy habits like eating right and staying active can help keep you well. To help you stay proactive with your health, we're sharing some of the most common health issues among seniors — and tips for living a healthy lifestyle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease — a disorder of the heart's blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack — is one of the leading causes of death among people age 65 and over. To prevent heart disease, it's important to make sure your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels are under control. This means eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. You'll also want to limit how much you drink and avoid smoking all together.
And don't forget about your mind and body connection — it matters. Extreme stress can trigger a heart attack, so manage it as best you can through healthy habits like practicing mindfulness or doing yoga.
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Arthritis is a very common condition among older adults and is the leading cause of disability in the United States. The most common form, osteoarthritis, affects your joints (usually the hands, knees, hips, and spine), and usually occurs as the result of long years of wear and tear on your body.
While damage to your joints is a natural part of aging, there are things you can do to prevent osteoarthritis, like maintaining a healthy weight. Excess weight puts more pressure on weight-bearing joints, and fat tissue produces proteins called cytokines that promote inflammation throughout the body. So it's important to eat healthy and exercise to avoid weight gain. Just make sure to exercise safely as your joints become more susceptible to injury as you age. If you have arthritis or osteoarthritis, check with your doctor for a list of approved exercises.
Chronic respiratory diseases affect the airways and other structures of the lung. Some of the most common are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), occupational lung diseases, and pulmonary hypertension. Tobacco is the most common cause of chronic respiratory diseases, so if you're still smoking, talk to your doctor to get help kicking the habit. Both indoor and outdoor air pollutants can also lead to chronic respiratory diseases, so make sure your home is clear of air pollutants like asbestos, carbon monoxide (CO), formaldehyde/pressed wood products, lead, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), pesticides, and radon.
As you get older, respiratory infections like pneumonia can progress into respiratory diseases, so it's important to wash your hands frequently to clear away infectious germs.
While genetic factors may heighten your risk of developing osteoporosis, you can still protect your bone health and lower your chance of developing this condition by simply getting enough of the right nutrients. Eating nutrient-packed foods like fruits and vegetables can help — especially those with a lot of calcium and vitamin D — as these vitamins are vital to your bone health. You'll want to steer clear of substances like tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine, as they can cause you to lose bone mass. Exercise is extremely important to preventing osteoporosis, too, so remember to keep moving!
Alzheimer's disease causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior, and is the most common form of dementia. While there are no clear-cut answers as to whether Alzheimer's can be prevented, studies have shown that people can reduce their risk of developing this disease by making key lifestyle changes, including participating in regular physical activity and maintaining good heart health. Maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active throughout life might also lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's. So, the next time you go for a walk or head to the gym, have a friend join you to help keep your body and mind strong.
There are many risk factors for developing cancer that you can't control, like your family history. However, some risk factors you can control, like your weight and exposure to carcinogens. Carcinogens are cancer-causing substances and exposures found in things like cigarette smoke and ultraviolet light. That's why it's important to not smoke and always use sunscreen, even on a cloudy day. Obesity is also a risk factor associated with developing cancer, so living a healthy lifestyle is key. Avoiding alcohol as much as possible is also just as important, as your risk for developing cancer increases with the amount of alcohol you drink.
Keep in mind, it's usually not possible to know exactly why one person develops cancer and another doesn't. There are many studies in the media that reveal new risk factors for cancer, but these findings could be based on studying just a few groups of people. So, the findings could be the result of chance, or the true risk factor could be something other than the suspected risk factor. That's why it's best to talk to your doctor if you have questions or want to learn more about the risk factors and prevention of cancer.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, happens when the force of blood flow (blood pressure) through your arteries is too high, causing the artery walls to become damaged. This can lead to heart complications, which is why it's so important to keep your blood pressure under control. While genetics can play a role in the development of high blood pressure, you can significantly reduce your chance of getting the condition by living a healthy lifestyle. Eating healthy, exercising, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco not only helps prevent hypertension, but can also help you manage it if you've already developed the condition. Talk to your doctor about the right amount of activity and exercise if you've already been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, and can cause serious health issues, such as heart disease, stroke, and eye and foot problems. Being overweight is a significant risk factor in the development of type 2 diabetes, so eating healthy and exercising regularly is vital to its prevention.
It can seem challenging to find the time to exercise regularly, but research suggests that just 30 minutes of physical activity 5 days a week can help you keep weight off. A quick bicycle ride or walk around your neighborhood Monday through Friday can help keep you in shape. And when it comes to eating healthy, remember your portion sizes. Eating smaller portions can help reduce the calories you consume at each meal, so you're not packing on extra pounds by overeating.
If you got the flu as a kid, you probably fought it off by resting, drinking lots of fluids, and taking aspirin. But getting the flu in older adulthood could be a whole different story. Once you turn 65, you're at a greater risk of developing serious complications from the flu. This is because your immune system weakens as you age, so your body has a harder time fighting off the virus.
That's why it's so important to get the flu vaccine every year. Your immunity to the flu and the virus itself changes each year, so last year's vaccine isn't going to protect you from this year's flu. The CDC recommends getting the vaccine by the end of October, however as long as flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue throughout flu season, even in January or later. Medicare Part B covers one flu shot per flu season, so you can get the vaccination at no extra cost.
At the very least, avoiding common health issues as you get older starts with a healthy diet and regular exercise. This isn't always easy, which is why many Medicare Advantage plans offer nutrition and fitness programs to members. Some of these programs may be included at no extra cost, so call your plan to see if these benefits are available to you.
Rachel Quetti is a health care writer at Aetna with experience in senior wellness, Medicare, commercial health care, and consumer engagement. When Rachel isn't trying out new fitness classes, she is cooking up fun, (mostly) healthy recipes in the kitchen. Rachel lives in Watertown, Massachusetts and has a degree in journalism from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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