Published in the April 2013 issue
The changes will be negligible at first — fluky things, like not remembering things that don’t matter anyway. You’ll joke about “senior moments.” But something real is happening. You’re starting to slow down — but again, it’s gradual. Your brain will start to lose about 0.5 percent of its volume each year from now on. There’s a decline in neurotransmitters and their receptors that impacts various functions — serotonin (mood), acetylcholine (memory, learning, and concentration), and dopamine (movement, motivation, and learning).
A lot of people are choosing a second career after retirement, something more fun — this is known as recareering, and it can save your brain. A recent study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry suggested that active employment later in life prolongs a person’s cognitive skills above the threshold for dementia and delays the onset of Alzheimer’s in men.
If you’re retired, do some of the loafing you’ve earned, but limit the number of hours you spend watching that TV channel that just shows World War II footage. Healthy people have hobbies. Woodworking is fun.
Drink red wine. It contains resveratrol, which has been shown to target the SIRT1 gene in mice, which has something to do with longevity.
Stay engaged with friends. A 2010 study in Chicago showed that seniors who felt a greater sense of purpose in life were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s. Another study in 2000 shows that having a poor or limited social network can increase the risk of dementia by 60 percent. It also makes you not a shut-in.
Have as much sex as you can.
“In the absence of diabetes and a family history, it’s hard to get a heart attack when you’re 50,” says Feuerbach. “It’s just not that common.” In the 60s, the risk increases, especially if you smoke or do have diabetes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should ask your doctor to perform a stress test, as many patients do. Unless your chest hurts, finding and even unblocking blocked arteries (with a stent) may not be worth the expense, pain, and danger of the operation. “It defies logic, but if I’ve got a right coronary artery with a 70 percent blockage that’s been found on the stress test, but I’m not having chest pain, it might not be in my best interest to get that opened up to be a zero percent with a stent. You would think that it would prevent a heart attack, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
Then there are aneurysms, little bubbles in blood vessels that can rupture and suddenly kill you. Your doctor can look for them and decide what to do if she spots one. If it’s large enough that it poses a danger of bursting — 3.5 centimeters, say — she might opt for surgery. If it’s 2 centimeters, the risk of surgery isn’t worth it and she might just check on it in six months or a year, according to osteopath George Kessler.
There’s no magic number, but probably by around 60, your immune system is becoming less robust. “You lose some of your immune memory,” says Dr. Andrew Saxon of UCLA. “That means the childhood vaccinations you got, and your immune system’s memory of how to fight things off, start to wear out.” There’s really nothing that can stop this, but washing your hands, not drinking too much or smoking at all, staying current with vaccinations, and physical activity become more important. And condoms, if you sleep around.
Seriously, don’t smoke. “I’m not on my high horse about it, but once your lungs are injured, your immune system can’t get in there and help,” says Saxon.
Ultimately, your immune system is your immune system. “It won’t be the arbiter of your death, unless you’re at the very end and everything else failed. You’re going to get old. You’re not going to live forever.”
Pneumonia vaccine (once at age 65 and older).
Flu vaccine (every year).
Shingles vaccine (once at age 60 and older).
Get checked for hepatitis. You may have had it for years and not know it. “In your 20s, you thought it was a bad flu, but now you’re 60 and you start having liver failure,” says Kessler. “You can have these things without symptoms.”
Get an eye exam every year or two. The sooner you catch something like glaucoma, macular degeneration, or cataracts, the more you can do to stop it.
“Nothing bad should kick in,” says Dr. Fisch. “If you maintain a healthy lifestyle, you should be able to have sex into your 90s, you should be able to exercise, enjoy life, be happy. Happiness is the most important thing. They say that married men live longer than unmarried men. That’s important, so have a great relationship. Stay connected to your friends. You have to feel connected.”
Arthritis: “I get a lot of patients in who have aching kneecaps or their hips start to hurt,” says Dr. Vonda Wright. “When that happens, the pain of arthritis feels like aching. You can tell the weather with your joints — you’re like, ‘I know it’s gonna rain.’ They get a little stiffer. When that happens, people think, Oh, I better slow down and make this go away. That’s the worst possible thing you can do. My treatment for arthritis is: Get as strong as possible in the muscles surrounding your joints, take anti-inflammatories or get on an anti-inflammatory diet, and then there are things we can do in the doctor’s office, like give you supplemental joint fluid for your knees, for example, if the arthritis is really bad. But it’s not an excuse for sitting in the chair. That’s just going to make you rust out.”
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