Top tips for healthier aging

In the leadup to POWERHOUSE: Healthier Aging, three of our top experts on aging weigh in on how you can stay as healthy and independent as possible as you get older – and when it's time to get more support.

Dr. Sharon Straus, Dr. Jennifer Watt, Janny Lee

What can people do to stay healthy as they get older? Anything that women in particular should do?

Geriatrician Dr. Sharon Straus, Physician-in-Chief, is a Member of the Order of Canada and is recognized as one of the world’s most influential researchers for her work on aging.

There are some good basic habits everyone can cultivate to promote good mental and physical health.

1. Be active: You don’t need to belong to a gym. Moderate to vigorous aerobic activities (e.g., brisk walk, swimming, biking) of at least 150 minutes per week is the target. Even light physical activities like standing are helpful. Talk to your healthcare provider about tailoring exercise to your physical condition.
2. Develop good sleep hygiene: Have a sleep schedule, avoid screen time before bed, decrease caffeine intake in the evening and above all, don’t place your phone by your bedside.
3. Minimize alcohol intake: Even in small quantities, alcohol poses risks to health.
4. And talk to your healthcare provider about relevant screening. For women aged 50 to 69 years old, we recommend screening with mammography every two to three years. Of course, that decision depends on how a woman weighs the possible benefits and harms from screening; you can discuss this decision with your healthcare provider. In contrast, there is no evidence that screening for dementia or mild cognitive impairment has any benefit.

Speaking of dementia, what should women know about their risk and how they can reduce their chances of developing it?

Dr. Jennifer Watt is a clinician-scientist and expert on dementia. She is involved in a research study at St. Michael’s Hospital and Providence Healthcare that describes the rehabilitation experiences of people–women, men and their caregivers–living with dementia.

As we know, dementia primarily impacts older adults. And since women live longer than men, about two-thirds of people living with dementia are women. In fact, by the time a woman is 65, her lifetime risk of developing it is 20 percent.

But you can reduce your risk. Keeping physically active and minimizing alcohol intake, like Sharon mentioned, top the list of things you can do. Others include: 

1. Not smoking
2. Controlling high blood pressure and diabetes.
3. Preventing hearing loss, or using hearing aids.
4. Avoiding social isolation.
5. And using pharmacologic treatments as well as non-drug interventions to reduce symptoms of depression.

With people living longer, chances of social isolation increase. How do we know when a loved one who is on their own is no longer managing safely?

Janny Lee is a clinical nurse specialist in geriatrics.

That can be complex to identify. Here are signs that someone may be having challenges living independently:

1. Physical limitations, such as mobility issues, including climbing the stairs or getting out of bed or requiring assistance to manage daily activities.
2. Frequent falls.
3. Cognitive decline. If they’re experiencing memory loss or confusion, or having difficulty making decisions, they may be at risk of failing to look after their basic needs or becoming disoriented in their home environment.
4. Poor hygiene, such as if they are not bathing or they’re wearing dirty clothes.
5. Poor nutrition, which can show up as unexplained weight loss or not eating well.
6. Isolation and withdrawal.
7. Mismanaging medications, like taking the wrong dose or forgetting to take them.
8. Home safety issues, such as when their home is unusually cluttered.
9. And difficulty managing their money, like forgetting to pay bills or needing help to balance their chequebook.

These signs do not mean that your loved one cannot continue to live independently, but may indicate that other supports are needed, such as home care or help from family or friends, or looking into alternative assistive living arrangements, such as a retirement home.

So how do you broach that topic?

That can be a challenging and emotional conversation. Here are some tips:

1. Have an open and honest conversation in an environment free from distractions.
2. Express your concerns and ask them what they think.
3. Provide information and discuss the different living arrangements available.
4. Listen to their concerns, being respectful and empathetic to their feelings.
5. And discuss the next steps.

It’s really important that these decisions be made collaboratively with the individual, respecting their personal preferences, needs and quality of life.

More questions about healthier aging? Check out our POWERHOUSE Speaker Series on March 29. REGISTER

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