The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.
It's true for friendships, wine, and yes, life: quality over quantity. Living to 100 doesn't have quite the same appeal if those last five, 10, or 20 years are filled with falls, funerals, and financial doom.
But aging well is more achievable today than ever before. According to the Stanford Center on Longevity, the number of adults ages 75 and older who are living with a chronic disease that hampers mobility has been steadily declining since 1997. To be a part of this trend, you should be aware of the common health issues that can make elderly life less pleasurable—and know how to lessen their impact should they arise.
Arthritis. Generally characterized as pain and stiffness around the joints, arthritis affects more than half of women over 65 and just under half of men in that same age group. While arthritis describes several conditions—rheumatoid, gout, and lupus—osteoarthritis, the most common type, occurs when the cartilage that protects bones begins to break down.
"Osteoarthritis is related to heredity, it's related to obesity, it's related to wear and tear on the joints," says Marie Bernard, a geriatrician and deputy director of the National Institute on Aging. The best defense is to maintain a healthy weight and remain physically active throughout your life, she says. If you're a young athlete, train carefully to prevent joint injuries, which can hike your odds of developing osteoarthritis in the affected joint. That means warming up and cooling down before and after physical activity, wearing well-fitted gear, and being coached by an expert, for example.
If you do develop osteoarthritis, range-of-motion exercises like swimming, strengthening exercises like weight training, and endurance activities like biking can help keep your joints limber, the muscles around them strong, and the weight off. Your doctor might also prescribe pain relievers or recommend over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen to help you cope.
Falls. After age 65, falls take the lead in causes of injury-related death. A recent study found that women ages 64 and older who suffer a hip fracture are twice as likely to die within a year as those with unbroken hips.
Falls can also signal the beginning of an overall decline in function, adds James Pacala, the associate head of the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota and president-elect of the American Geriatrics Society. "When you reach the point where, instead of just a pain in your knee from arthritis, you're falling, or getting confused, or losing weight, you've crossed a threshold," he says.
Strength training can counteract the disappearing muscle mass that comes with age, and balance-building activities like Tai Chi can help you stay on your feet. In addition to a well-rounded diet, certain supplements might prove beneficial: A 2004 meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of falls by more than 20 percent among older individuals with stable health.
Practical changes can also lessen your likelihood of toppling. Consider buying a pair of non-skid shoes and a cane if you're wobbly; installing "grab bars" near the shower; replacing dim light bulbs; and standing up slowly. Avoiding that first fall is critical: Two-thirds of seniors who fall once fall again within six months.
Hearing loss. Losing your hearing means more than adding "Speak up!" to your daily dialogue. Even mild hearing loss is strongly associated with a higher risk of falling, according to a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Impaired hearing has also been linked to a slide in cognitive abilities and almost always means strained relationships and reduced social engagement, the latter of which may raise your vulnerability to multiple diseases and premature death.
To minimize future hearing loss, steer clear of loud noises when you're young. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, anything over 85 decibels—only about the level of a hair dryer—is enough to cause permanent damage. "I worry about kids with their iPods blasting so loud you can hear it across the room," says Bernard. With good reason: A 2010 study in Pediatrics found that today's teens listen to music through headphones more frequently than did teens in decades past, which, when coupled with their frequent attendance at loud concerts without ear protection, might explain why an increasing number of teenage girls are showing signs of hearing loss. Adds Bernard: "What's going to happen to their hearing when they're 50 or 60?"
Already straining to hear? It could be time to consider a hearing aid, especially if your problem makes you embarrassed to meet new people or frustrated when talking to family. But shopping for one can be daunting. There are as many makes and models as cars, and some cost a whopping $10,000 a pair. That's why finding a good provider to guide you is important. Start with your family doctor, who may refer you to an audiologist, or a practitioner who is trained to diagnose and treat hearing and balance problems. It's OK to meet with a few audiologists until you find one who understands and respects your needs. And know that most states require hearing-aid manufacturers to offer a free trial of their devices.
At the end of the day, hearing aids seem to be worth the hassle. A 2011 survey of hearing-aid owners over age 50 found that the vast majority were happy with their device, believing it had improved their quality of life. Nonetheless, only 1 in every 5 people who could benefit from a hearing aid uses one, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Impaired vision. Like ears, eyes struggle to stand the test of time. Cataracts, or cloud-like spots on the eye, strike more than half of Americans older than 80, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease that wears away the central part of the eye, is the most common cause of severe vision loss among people over 60.
Fortunately, cataracts can be treated relatively easily and effectively with cataract surgery, a common procedure that swaps out the cloudy lens for an artificial one. Vision loss through AMD, however, can only be slowed—not reversed—in its more severe "wet" form through injections of a drug that stops your eyes from sprouting more abnormal blood vessels and laser therapy that destroys these same vessels. There's some evidence that large doses of antioxidants and zinc might thwart the progression of "wet" AMD and help preserve vision.
But the prospect of successful treatment is no reason not to care for your eyes throughout your life. Roughly 20 percent of cataracts are caused by overexposure to harmful ultraviolet rays. Wear a pair of UV ray-blocking shades and a brimmed hat whenever you're in the sun, says Bernard. Smoking also appears to contribute to the development of both cataracts and AMD.
Once you turn 65, the most important preservative is an annual eye exam, recommends the National Eye Institute. Poor vision, which often creeps up slowly, is not only dangerous when you're on the road, but, like hearing loss, it can also be isolating. "Your senses are a prerequisite for engaging the intellectual and social and physical worlds," says Pacala.
The upside of aging. As you get older, you may lose your hair, your height, your muscle, your mind— the list goes on. But there's at least one thing you're likely to gain: happiness, found a recent survey of 340,000 older Americans.
"As people age, they are less troubled by stress and anger, and although worry persists, it, too, fades after the age of 50," according to the researchers. That's not to say older adults are immune to stress. Hardly. Friends and spouses die, kids move away, financial problems persist. But "people who are able to maintain their activities and then find new ways to compensate if they can't are people who remain happy," observes George Rebok, a professor in the department of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "They continually seek ways to overcome problems—they aren't just focused on their losses."
Maintaining a positive outlook is a worthy goal at any age. Knowing that it can contribute to both quantity and quality of life? Now that's an easy pill to swallow.