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Never Too Late to Change Behaviors to Improve Health
By Michael D. Parkinson, M.D., MPH

Michael D. Parkinson, M.D., MPH

Here's something that might surprise you: You are closer to good health than you realize.

Many people – most especially those who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s – tend to think that the opposite is true. They think that, in terms of health, their best days are behind them and there's not much they can do about it.

In fact, there is a lot you can do about it. This may be healthcare's best-kept secret: Lots of people do not appreciate the role that healthy behaviors can make in terms of treating or reversing conditions – at all stages of life.

You need to understand that small changes in your daily routines can and will make a big change in your health and your future, regardless of your age. Neither chronic disease, nor a so-called "natural decline with aging," is inevitable. You can have a very active life for a long time with few limitations and much less disease.

Keeping active physically, mentally and socially affects the aging process positively in many ways.

Adults, 65 and older, can have significant health improvements with simple and realistic lifestyle changes. Risk can be reduced for many diseases—including obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.

The elderly can also ward off risks to their health late in life by improving body composition – lowering fat and boosting muscle mass. Adhering to a low-calorie and low-fat diet – high in vegetables and fruits – with a regular exercise plan, can help the elderly stave off the diseases associated with aging.

Top Things You Can Do Immediately To Improve Your Health and Your Care

  • Stop smoking. (You're never too old to quit.)
  • Become physically active in some way. (Age is not a factor.)
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat right
  • Use alcohol in moderation

The Wrong Attitude Many times older adults adopt an attitude that they can't reverse "70 years of abuse" so it doesn't make sense to even try. That's all wrong. You can be actively involved in taking back your health at any age.

Especially for older adults, your attitude should be: The most important job I have is to be fit. There has to be that sense of urgency and sense of passion, especially when you're older.

And yes, you CAN acquire new habits. Research shows that if you can sustain a behavior for six weeks, then you have a great chance of making it a permanent part of your new and healthier life.

Get Active!
Increasing physical activity needs to be a priority for a number of reasons. Physically, mentally and socially, activity is far and away, the "best medicine." Take just one condition – osteoporosis, for example.

As people age, they rightly worry about osteoporosis and "bone health." Yes, osteoporosis can be a dangerous condition if you fall. The best way to prevent falls is not to have any! And the best way to build up an "immunity to falling" is to develop your core body strength which enhances your balance and confidence. But, you have to work at it. Within several weeks of aerobic exercise (walking) and modest weight training, you'll notice a marked difference in alertness, muscle tone and stability.

Don't Ignore Your Social Network
All of us, and most especially older persons, rely more than we realize on our social network to sustain us. If you want to begin a regimen of healthy eating, stop smoking, or become more active, your chances of succeeding – both in terms of starting and sustaining the effort – will improve if you have some support. That support can come in the form of cajoling, friendly challenges, humor, or whatever. But it helps to have people along with you on the journey to wellness.

Your support system can be a spouse, a relative, a neighbor, a church, an activity group, or just some people you regularly exercise with at a fitness club or play with on the golf course. The group can be large or small. But its importance cannot be underestimated.

Things to Remember:

  • Everyone can choose to live a long, vibrant life filled with vim and vigor.
  • You are closer to good health than you realize.
  • Small changes in your daily routines can and will make a big change in your health and future.
  • The choices that result in good health are simple. No special gimmicks, diet, pills, supplements or regimens are needed.
  • Simple, short activities throughout the day can improve health and fitness. Talk to your doctor about recommending a course of activity that can help get you started.

Dr. Michael Parkinson is Senior Medical Director for Health and Productivity for UPMC WorkPartners, which is part of the integrated partner companies of the UPMC Insurance Services Division. He can be reached at parkinsonmw@upmc.edu.

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