Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD
Think you’re fit as a fiddle? Not so fast! A new study of more than 80,000 Europeans over age 50 found that the people who overestimated their own health tended to go to the doctor less—which might have unfortunate consequences.
The fewer health care visits are no surprise. Why go to the doctor if you’re feeling fine? But this overly confident attitude might lead to missing signs of health concerns early on, thanks to the lack of screenings and preventive care, not to mention missed vaccines.
For older adults, those rose-colored glasses can be more like blinders, according to the researchers from the University of Vienna, Austria, and the Hertie School in Berlin. “On the one hand, individuals who overestimate their health may be less likely to seek medical attention and receive timely screenings, because they believe their health is perfect,” the authors wrote. “On the other hand, the same individuals might engage in activity or behavior detrimental to health and thus end up in the hospital more often. For example, individuals who overestimate their mobility are more prone to fall-induced injuries.”
Lack of preventive care & regular screening
Before we judge anyone for being overly confident about their health, let’s keep in mind that it’s normal not to “care” about something if you’re already overwhelmed with other concerns and responsibilities. Adults, especially seniors experiencing changes that come with age, may not accurately assess their own health status simply because they haven’t found the time to put their needs first. After all, when you’re busy with work and family (and perhaps that includes the care of an aging parent), it’s easy to put those preventive appointments on the back burner.
But preventive care and screenings are important, especially for aging adults. Even worse, previous studies have found that seniors who overestimate their health may be more likely to have unhealthy habits, such as drinking, eating an unhealthy diet, or not getting enough sleep. According to that research, those who overestimate their health may take part in riskier health behaviors because they believe they can “afford” it.
Unfortunately, the combination of partaking in risky health habits, and not going to the doctor frequently enough for preventive care could create a perfect storm for older adults, who may wind up with potentially serious health problems that they don’t catch early on through routine screenings that are typically included in an annual preventive care check-up.
How can seniors stay healthy? 10 tips and preventive strategies
In addition to maintaining a realistic view of your health and getting the preventive care and screening tests you need, here are some other tips for staying healthy as you age:
- Exercise. Physical activity is vital to aging well. Exercise promotes both physical and mental health. It helps build muscle and maintain muscle mass, improve mobility, strengthen the immune system, boost energy and reduce frailty and mortality. Physical activity also improves mental health, cognition and quality of life. So whether your preferred form of movement is swimming, Tai Chi, or an aerobic activity class, get out there and work up a sweat!
- Take care of your brain. Physical activity isn’t the only thing that helps our brains. Mental exercises, such as crosswords, Sudoku, Wordle, puzzles and other brain games are also great exercises for seniors who want to stay sharp. Additionally, eating foods on the MIND diet and increasing the intake of certain nutrients are a great way to feed a healthy brain.
- Maintain social connections. Not only is sharing time with someone generally more fun than being alone, but research shows that older adults with a socially active lifestyle may enjoy better cognitive function. That means those bingo games and brunches with friends and family could help improve your aging memory and cognitive health.
- Eat a healthy diet. At any age, we are what we eat—because food impacts your health and longevity. Research shows anti-inflammatory patterns in the Mediterranean diet and dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet may be neuroprotective, meaning these healthy diets may protect your brain cells from damage or impairment. Your diet also can increase or decrease your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other medical conditions.
- Get adequate sleep. Sweet, restful slumber gets harder to achieve after age 50—additionally, medical conditions, certain medicines, stress, nicotine and alcohol also contribute to sleep problems. And unfortunately, lack of sleep can have serious mental and physical health consequences. Aging adults with insomnia report a lower quality of life and also have a higher risk of heart disease, some cancers, cognitive decline and other health problems.
- Manage stress. Learning to deal with stress is key to emotional and mental wellness. Chronic stress can wreak havoc with your body thanks to the overload of cortisol, your stress hormone. It can mess with your circadian rhythms, immune system and gut microbiome. Stress also increases your risk of blood pressure problems, cardiovascular disease, depression, dementia, cancer, diabetes and more. Mindfulness and meditation, exercise, and even pets are healthy strategies to help seniors reduce their stress levels. A strong social support network and a healthy diet can also help.
- Visit your doctor and dentist regularly. As we know, preventive services—which will include everything from blood pressure readings to vaccines to cancer screenings—are key to staying healthy. This starts with regular health care check-ups with a trusted doctor, as well as honest conversations about your health, diet, exercise level and lifestyle. Visiting your dentist is just as important. Studies show more than half of older adults (53%) have moderate or severe periodontal disease. Not only can this disease be painful, but it is also linked with chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
- Take any prescribed medications properly. It might be frustrating to have to remember to take your vitamins and medication at the proper time, but not taking medicine as prescribed could lead to worsening health problems or even death. According to the CDC, non-adherence causes up to 50 percent of chronic disease treatment failures and 125,000 deaths every year. So get the pill container, refrigerator magnet, or phone app you need to help you remember to follow doctor’s orders.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, restful sleep and avoidance of alcohol and nicotine are lifestyle choices that can help seniors avoid inflammation and achieve the golden age they desire.
- Stay hydrated. Adequate water intake helps remove waste from your body, control your appetite, lubricate your joints, protect your spine and boost metabolism! But often, we only pay attention to water when we don’t have enough. Dehydration causes headaches, unclear thinking, mood changes, overheating, constipation and kidney stones. So raise a glass and toast your good health with simple H2O.
Why is preventive care important when you are over 50?
As we age, we become more susceptible to disease, whether it’s dementia, colorectal cancer, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. The bodies of aging adults are changing at a cellular level as nutrient levels decline. Their cells have less fuel for energy, their bones become less dense, their muscles lose mass, their joints become less flexible and their immune systems don’t function as well.
Regular screenings for health problems and preventive care can help detect these problems early, so that seniors can adjust their lifestyle or seek medical intervention before warning signs turn into a serious condition.
What foods are bad for seniors?
We know certain diets can extend our life spans and protect against dementia, so it makes sense that other diets, filled with foods high in added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and overly processed foods, would work against our health.
To avoid the risk of disease and chronic conditions, aging adults should follow these tips and steer clear of the following:
- Processed meats: Cured meats like ham, salami and bologna are packed with additives and preservatives that you want to avoid. Home-cooked roast beef is a better choice.
- Fried and fast food: Crispy fries, chicken wings and creamy milkshakes might tempt the taste buds, but the unhealthy fats and sugars in these foods also add to the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke in older adults. Air fryers make it quick and easy to make a much healthier version of chicken and fries in your own kitchen.
- Hidden sugars: Does it have a low-fat label? Watch out! Companies often add sugar to compensate for less fat. Sugars are also hidden in many processed foods, including breads, crackers and pasta sauces. Check the label before you buy and try to choose unprocessed foods whenever possible.
Healthy aging: Do social connections keep seniors healthy?
Life is better with friends, both mentally and physically. Laughing with friends releases happy hormones that support learning, a better mood, peaceful sleep, improved digestion and more. Research shows eating together supports heart health and mental health, and good social connections support stronger memory and cognitive function.
So call a friend or family member and set a date for better health!
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