Ageing gracefully and managing mental health are two of the major concerns for women in this age group
With age the risk of contracting lifestyle diseases increases. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six in 10 adults suffer from a chronic disease resulting from poor lifestyle choices such as poor diet, tobacco use, lack of exercise and excessive alcohol consumption.
For those already suffering from metabolic diseases such as hypertension and diabetics, managing it can be challenging. And even in the absence of such diseases, senior citizens are vulnerable to dental problems, falls and infections that can impact their sense of well-being. Prevention is possible and, as the saying goes, is better than cure.
As people age, they reduce consumption of food. “While that may be a good thing, what is not is the fact that they stop having a balanced diet,” says Dr Magesh R, Geriatrician, Apollo Hospitals, Chennai. Proteins and micronutrients are important and elders must consume pulses, vegetables and fruits.
The problem is also compounded by poor dental health because of which chewing can be a problem. “Consulting a dentist periodically is important,” says he.
One study shows that the incidence of oral cancer, associated with aging, is highest in India at 13.5% of all body cancers. There is very little awareness about preventive dental care in urban areas while non-existent in rural areas.
The study also stresses on the need for dental graduates to be oriented towards the elderly.
Women have to also be careful about their bone health as poor diet in younger age can cause bone problems such as osteoporosis in the 50s and 60s.
In a study of bone health, 1600 healthy subjects (792 males and 808 females) with a mean age of 57.67 ± 9.46 years in Delhi were given anthropometric, biochemical and hormonal evaluation.
Osteoporosis was present in 42.5% of the females, and osteopenia in 44.9%. The incidence of osteoporosis increased with age in females. Women should consult a doctor and take calcium and vitamin tablets after proper evaluation.
Since elders are also vulnerable to infections, taking flu vaccinations can help prevent many diseases. However, these vaccinations must be taken every year since otherwise the virus has a tendency to develop new strains and attack.
Periodic screening for cancers and chronic diseases is also important to prevent the onset of life-threatening diseases.
Urinary incontinence is another common problem elderly women face since their pelvic muscles weaken after vaginal childbirth. One study reports 25–45% of adult women in global studies are affected by UI while it is 10–42% in India.
From 5.6% in the third decade, the prevalence goes up to 39% in the seventh decade. Delivery at home and pregnancy at a young age were found to be common risk factors.
It being perceived as a social stigma, many women – as many as 25% – do not voice their problem or seek help.
Constipation is also a problem that becomes severe in older women due to weakened pelvic muscles and poor diet. Drinking enough water is also important to prevent it.
Falling is also a cause for concern amongst elderly women and preventable.
The role of exercise in strengthening muscles, bones and improving general health cannot be overstressed. It can improve bone health and also prevent falls.
“Initially it may be difficult to walk for 40 minutes. Start with 10 minutes and slowly increase,” points Dr Magesh. Regular exercise is also good for the heart, blood circulation and managing sugar. “In senior citizens, low sugar is more dangerous than high. So the goal of treatment changes,” he adds.
Sometimes the seniors may also suffer from multiple problems and need many different kinds of medicines, called polypharmacy, which can have its own side effects.
“While specialists treat their areas of specialisation, it is important for the elderly to consult a general physician or a geriatrician who assesses the overall health,” he explains.
Here he stresses the importance of taking care of the mental health of the senior citizen in addition to the physical health.
According to a study on geriatric mental health in India, ageing of the brain, deteriorating physical health, cerebral pathology and socio-economic factors such as breakdown of the family support systems, social isolation and loss of economic independence are some of the common factors causing mental disorders.
In women, poor education levels, loss of spouse, medical co-morbidities (a person suffering from many medical illnesses), poor socio-economic status and disability also play a role in causing psychiatric illnesses.
“Many doctors ignore the mental, social and emotional health aspects of their elderly patients,” the doctor says. The elders may be isolated which leads to low morale, and which in turn manifests in physical diseases. Loss of spouse, children having flown the nest are some of the factors that can leave them vulnerable to loneliness.
Having social interactions and children periodically checking on their parents can go a long way in keeping them healthy and happy. “Many seniors think that when they retire from work, they should retire from life too. That’s not right,” stresses the doctor.
He recommends maintaining a vibrant social life and also learning something new to keep the mind agile and active are key to happiness. Many elders stop trying out new things, do not exercise much and start becoming isolated, which can lead to low mood and depression. “The brain is efficient when you try out new things,” the doctor points out.
Tips for good health in the elderly:
• A nutrient-rich diet
• Sufficient physical activity
• Avoidance of fried, salty and spicy foods
• Drinking adequate water to prevent dehydration
• Avoiding smoking, chewing of tobacco and tobacco products and consumption of alcohol
• Periodic health screening for blood sugar, lipids and blood pressure
• Take medicines only with prescription
• Practice stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation