Aging Gracefully––Cooper Clinic

Aging Gracefully

By Laura DeFina, MD, Cooper Clinic, Texoma LIVING WELL Magazine

As you get older, there are many things you should consider to age gracefully and healthfully. Whether you are turning 40 or 65, it’s never too early to start the process of healthy aging. Follow these four aging principles to help you live a healthy life throughout the decades.

1. See a physician. Begin preparing medically for healthy “Golden Years.” Routine preventive health care, including evaluation for cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure or diabetes, cancer screening and immunizations, is important to aging with less debility and medical illness. Good control of cardiovascular risk factors leads to fewer heart attacks and strokes, which in turn allow better function so you can do the things you enjoy. Historically, men often avoid “unnecessary” screening medical care until they are ill. Break this cycle and get your preventive health care now. Help your physician help you by:

  • Having regular, comprehensive physical exams and follow-up appointments.
  • Bringing a list of your medications prescribed by both your primary care doctor and any specialists you see. This list should also include your supplements and over-the-counter medications, as these can interact with prescription medications.
  • Bringing a list of your medical questions. This helps your physician focus your appointment to address both your active concerns and your preventive care. You should also include information about any other doctor visits or emergency room trips.

2. Regular exercise helps you now and later. The numerous medical benefits of exercise, including less high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, can be realized from starting and maintaining regular exercise early in life. This “head start” on wellness then translates into less disease in the “Golden Years” and better function. Exercise is beneficial even to those who have significant medical conditions. Generally, individuals over the age of 55 to 65 years old should discuss beginning an exercise program with their primary care doctor or cardiologist to ensure it is safe. It is also important to speak to your orthopedic surgeon if you have had lower extremity surgery recently to ensure you are cleared for exercise.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website has helpful information on exercise for older adults in the “Physical Activity for Everyone” section. Exercise not only prevents disease but it also keeps seniors active, maintains muscle bulk, helps prevent falls and has been shown to decrease memory loss. Remember, regular activity should include:

  • Aerobic activity, such as walking or stationary cycling, for at least 150 minutes per week.
  • Strength training at least two days per week.

3. Healthy eating does matter in senior citizens. It is not time to “throw care to the wind” and eat whatever you want. An appropriately balanced diet with low-fat, low sodium, and adequate protein and carbohydrates is important in preventing and treating high blood pressure, diabetes and other medical conditions. In addition, ensuring you get enough vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet and/or by supplements helps to maintain strong bones and strong minds. Seniors should avoid tobacco and only use alcohol in moderation, if at all. Both of these bad habits can lead to worse medical health and memory!

4. Significant memory loss or dementia (or senility) is not a “given of aging.” Maintaining good control of cardiovascular risk factors, getting regular exercise and eating well all lead to improved memory and activity in elderly. Memory loss occurs with many conditions of aging including low thyroid function, low vitamin B12 level, active medical conditions, depression, and with the use of many medications. It is important to have a thorough medical examination if memory loss appears to be a problem for you or your parents to ensure that none of these problems are causing reversible memory loss.

Depression is absolutely not a “normal” symptom of aging. Appropriate treatment of depression can improve memory and activity levels. Remember that staying socially and intellectually active also helps to maintain your memory.

Again, you can never over prepare for the aging process. With these tips in mind, you are sure to be running into your Golden Years.

About Laura DeFina, MD

Laura DeFina received her MD from George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC.  She completed her post-graduate training at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.  While in the US Army, she practiced medicine at Andrew Radar US Army Health Clinic (Fort Myer, VA) and at Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center (Fort Gordon, GA).  In Dallas, she practiced Geriatrics with the Health Texas Provider Network/Baylor Senior Health Network for 10 years prior to joining Cooper Clinic in 2006, given her interest in prevention and research.

In June 2009, she transferred to The Cooper Institute as Medical Director to begin a full-time research career. Her areas of research interest are healthy aging, brain health, and preventive health care.  Currently, she supervises our Clinical Investigations division, which presently has active trials looking at the benefits of exercise on adolescent depression and on memory in seniors. In addition, she oversees the Cooper Institute/University of Texas Southwestern Research Collaboration with Dr. Scott Grundy from UT Southwestern, which develops collaborative research projects with investigators from both institutions. She has authored and co-authored manuscripts related to, among other topics, brain health, cardiorespiratory fitness, injury in physically active women, and healthy aging.  Her active grants include a Discovery Foundation Grant looking at cardiovascular issues in women and a Roche Grant looking at the impact of cardiorespiratory fitness on a cardiac biomarker.  Dr. DeFina is on the Prevention and Brain Health Group for the Texas State Plan on Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dr. DeFina joined The Cooper Institute as Medical Director of research in June 2009. She previously served as a preventive medicine physician with a special interest in healthy aging and caring for the elderly for the past two and a half years at Cooper Clinic.