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A guide for making the most of old age

Tuesday, March 30, 2010; HE02

Adopting healthful habits can significantly alter the course of aging, even if you don't start until you are middle-aged or older, growing research suggests.

As more people live into their 80s, 90s and beyond, researchers are increasingly asking what it takes not just to survive but also to thrive in later years. Here is Consumer Reports' guide to successful aging.

Exercise your brain.

Your brain needs a workout just as much as your arms and legs. Education and an active work life when you are younger can help ward off dementia later, perhaps by building a cognitive reserve so that small losses in function are not as noticeable. It may be equally important to stay mentally engaged after retirement. A study of about 500 men and women 75 and older published in the journal Neurology in 2009 found that they could delay cognitive decline by participating in mentally stimulating activities such as reading, writing and doing puzzles.

Strong social ties can also help.

Harvard researchers followed 16,638 adults 50 and older for six years. Those who volunteered the most and had lots of connections to family and friends were least likely to show declines in memory tests.

Keep eyes and ears sharp.

Vision and hearing tests by specialists should be a regular part of your anti-aging plan. Sight-threatening diseases that are more common with age, including cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration, can be controlled or halted if caught early. Hearing loss, the third most common chronic condition in older Americans, can contribute to cognitive decline, depression and social isolation, and can even signal an increased risk of other health problems such as Type 2 diabetes or stroke.

To reduce your risk of eye disease, avoid tobacco smoke, wear sunglasses, maintain a healthy weight and control high blood pressure and blood sugar levels. To reduce the risk of hearing loss, consider using earplugs in situations noisy enough that you have to raise your voice to be heard.

Stay young at heart.

Undiagnosed vascular disease -- clogged arteries in the heart, brain or legs -- may lead to disability not only by triggering heart attacks and strokes but also by causing frailty, weakness and unplanned weight loss, according to findings from the Cardiovascular Health Study, which was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and involved about 4,700 people 65 and older. So work with your doctor to keep blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels under control even as you get into your 70s and beyond.

Guard your gut.

People turning 60 now may actually face a higher risk of disability than those who reached that age a decade or two ago, possibly because more people today are overweight. So if you are in your 40s, 50s or 60s, you should be especially vigilant against creeping weight gain.

Strengthen your back.

Back pain is the nation's second-leading cause of disability, trailing only arthritis. Being able to stand straight and remain free of crippling lower-back pain in later years depends on maintaining the strength of the bones in your spine as well as the muscles that support them. Exercises that work muscles in the back and abdomen, such as abdominal curls and trunk extensions, may also help prevent spinal fractures. And activities such as Pilates and yoga can help ease back pain.

Protect hips and knees.

Exercise is also a key to helping prevent or alleviate arthritis and joint pain. Resistance training doing calisthenics or using elastic bands, free weights or weight machines strengthens the muscles. That, in turn, protects the joints and makes them more stable.

Stay steady on your feet.

The fear of falling often causes anxiety, and with good reason: About 30 percent of people older than 65 and half of those 80 and older have fallen at some point. Build strong legs by doing strength exercises two to three times weekly.

Sleep well, age well.

"The idea that people need and want less sleep as they get older is a myth," says Harrison Bloom, a physician who is a senior associate with the International Longevity Center USA in New York. But it is true that the type of sleep they get often changes. "People may not sleep as deeply as they did when they were young, and they may awaken more frequently," Bloom says. That disturbed sleep increases the risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease, depression and hypertension.

Health conditions that impair sleep, such as sleep apnea, are often independent problems that respond to treatment. Your physician should periodically question both you and your bed partner about your sleep habits at routine exams, referring you to a specialist if warranted.

Copyright 2010. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to ConsumerReportsHealth.org. More-detailed information -- including CR's ratings of prescription drugs, conditions, treatments, doctors, hospitals and healthy-living products -- is available to subscribers to that site.

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