Those advancing years need not be worrisome. With a few lifestyle modifications and some planning, one can avoid disease, loneliness and financial insecurity, says Hema Vijay

As teenagers, we agonise over pimples and the marks we secure in examinations. As youth, we get caught up with our career and salary slip. In middle age, we worry about our children. Quite often, it is only in old age that we get to really enjoy life. Ironical as it may sound, life as a senior citizen can end up being the best part of one's life. That is, if one handles it right.

Watch out for these

The most common diseases in the elderly are hypertension, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, thyroid malfunction, cataract, vision and hearing loss, Parkinson's disease, and dementia. The impact of all of these can be reduced with suitable lifestyle changes and sometimes, medical/surgical intervention.

Thus, solving puzzles or learning new skills keeps the brain cells exercised and active and helps avert dementia. “A master health check-up once a year is crucial, because many diseases are silent attackers,” says V. S. Natarajan, a retired professor who established the country's first ever geriatrics department at the Government General Hospital, Chennai in 1988.

“Depression is the most common cause of memory loss in elders; however, a cure is possible in many cases,” says Dr. Natarajan, who runs a memory clinic for the elderly. “Elderly patients can help doctors make a better diagnosis by jotting down questions, so that they don't forget to ask them during consultations,” adds G. Karthikeyan, a senior general physician.

Frequent urination and incontinence (loss of control of the bladder) are other potential causes of trouble. “But, incontinence can be successfully treated with exercises,” says Dr. Natarajan. Go for cancer screening if you notice signs of cancer, especially if there is a family history of cancer.

“Many elderly people mistake signs of cancer for natural symptoms of aging,” remarks R. Magesh, consultant geriatrician, Apollo Hospitals and secretary, Chennai chapter, Indian Academy of Geriatrics. Prostate cancer in men, cervical and breast cancer in women, and lung cancer in smokers are common.

Elders are also at risk of falling because of failing vision, loss of balance and bone density. “When elderly people fall, there is a chance of their suffering multiple fractures,” says Dr. Natarajan. On the streets, exercise caution. For instance, a stiff neck can prevent a wide view of the road, especially when crossing, while a stiff leg could slow your reflexes, especially when you shift from the accelerator to the brake pedal.

Diet and exercise

As you grow older, your appetite decreases. But it's important to ensure that you eat quality food.

“Cut down on rice. Replace one rice-based meal everyday with a wheat or ragi-based meal. Eat dal, mushroom, soya and egg white, which are good sources of protein; also, fresh fruits, vegetables and plenty of milk,” recommends Dr. Natarajan.

Maintain ideal body weight according to your body mass index; keep consumption of salt and sugar to a minimum, and levels of cholesterol and blood pressure under control.

Exercise is good for everyone, but crucial for the elderly. Exercise in old age prevents osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Besides, it improves general well-being too. You need to exercise for 30 minutes every day.

Financial security

Of course, one needs to make financial provision for old age, including health insurance cover. “We normally incur 80 to 90 per cent of our lifetime's health expenses in the last 10 years of our life,” says Dr. Magesh.

But, ultimately, the happiest senior citizens are those who brush aside their grievances. “Problems and differences of opinion are inevitable in any family. We should remember that it started right from when we dealt with cranky kids and obstinate teenagers,” remarks Dr. Magesh. He adds, “If you are open to learning new things, it is easier to stay connected with people. Skype, for instance, helps you connect with your grandchildren who are abroad.” For peace of mind, daily meditation or yoga is effective.

Loneliness is often an enemy of old age. But you can fight it by cultivating hobbies, joining groups, or staying in touch with friends. “The happiest senior citizens seem to be those who are involved in community service,” observes Dr. Magesh.”

A case in point is the cheerful and energetic Dr. Natarajan himself. At 72, he is as active as ever — writing books, giving free consultations for elders in remote villages, and volunteering service for the elderly in the city through a Senior Citizens' Bureau.

Keywords: health issues

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012