How to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle in your 60s and beyond
When the body is strong, the heart is stronger, too.
When it comes to matters of the heart, the health risks are serious. Heart disease kills one Australian every 30 minutes. While your danger of heart disease increases with every decade, you needn’t feel helpless. In many cases, heart disease is preventable. A healthy lifestyle is the not-so-secret solution, and it’s as easy as a few small changes to your daily routine. Follow these five steps to a heart-healthy lifestyle in your 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.
Regularly visit your GP
Nobody knows your body better than you, but a GP knows how to read the signs and symptoms of any medical concerns you might have – even ones you’re not aware of – before they turn into a serious issue. “There are a number of screening activities and preventive interventions which GPs undertake to help keep us healthy and well as we age,” says Chris Dalton, National Medical Director for Bupa.
In your 60s, a cardiovascular screening will check for risk factors for heart and blood vessel disease. During the assessment, a GP will check “blood pressure, serum lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides), whether you have diabetes, are a smoker, and your level of alcohol intake, weight and physical activity,” explains Dalton. “Testing for lipids and diabetes involves a fasting blood test, and the other factors will be discussed with your GP face to face.” Additional activities that are recommended for this age bracket include screening for kidney disease (urine and blood tests), as well as immunisations against influenza (yearly), pneumococcus (a serious type of bacterial infection) and herpes zoster (shingles), adds Dalton.
Screening for cardiovascular risk continues to be a top priority in your 70s. “Atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat) is very common in the elderly (15 per cent or more) and may need to be managed with medication to prevent strokes,” warns Dalton.
Apart from heart issues, Dalton says that hearing and visual problems may become more apparent later in life and your GP will help you manage those. “Certain people are at more risk of developing glaucoma (high eye pressure); and thinning and weakening of the bones (osteoporosis) may also become more apparent,” says Dalton. While opportunistic skin checks are essential, Dalton says that in most cases, screening for other cancers is not recommended. For example, it may not be necessary after the age of 70 to screen for uterine cervix cancer, or for breast and bowel cancers for people over 75 (unless the patient is high-risk).
Keep physically active
When the body is strong, the heart is stronger, too. “As we age, we are at higher risk of falling – staying active or commencing regular exercise helps minimise this, and helps lower our cardiovascular risk,” says Dalton. With every year, “muscle strength continues to deteriorate, as does bone strength,” he explains, which is why it’s important to make exercise a priority in your daily routine. Of course, staying active in your 60s and beyond is a lot more difficult than when you were at your most agile and energetic in your younger years. But exercise doesn’t have to mean sweating it out at the gym for hours or running a marathon – it’s the simple things that will keep you healthy. “At least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity is recommended daily; if one has not been exercising, this will need to be slowly built up. Some resistance training (gym work, weights etc.) is recommended as part of this regimen,” says Dalton, adding that there are many community-based gentle exercise programs available for older people, such as aqua aerobics and tai chi.
Follow a heart-healthy diet
Eating a healthy diet in your 60s and beyond is not dissimilar to what you should be putting on your plate in your 40s, or even your 20s. Dalton advocates a ‘Mediterranean-style diet’, which includes lots of salads, vegetables, fish, lean chicken, olive oil, nuts, legumes, high-grain bread and cereals, and low fat spreads and dairy. Having one to three serves of protein a day is important – think lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes. However, “Red meat should be limited (to about three serves per week),” advises Dalton. “Aiming for two to four serves of reduced-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt or alternatives each day is recommended. Fats from avocados, nuts and olive oil are healthy but trans fats in deep-fried foods and baked foods like biscuits, cakes, pastries and muffins are best avoided. Butter and coconut oil should also be minimised,” recommends Dalton. Limit salt to less than five grams per day (about a teaspoon); instead, season food with herbs and spices. “Trying to establish good daily routines and habits is the secret to success here,” concludes Dalton.
Maintain a social life
“We all know interacting with others can often make us feel happy – who hasn’t enjoyed a lunch or dinner with friends or family, a bike ride with mates, a trip to the beach with grandchildren and so on?” says Dalton. And there may even be scientific evidence to back up the benefits of spending time in the company of others. Research suggests that loneliness and social isolation may be risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke as large studies have shown an increased risk in isolated individuals. Surround yourself with a network of quality relationships and maintain an active social schedule.
Exercise your mind
When you step away from the workforce and ease into retirement, it can be easy to settle into a less-active lifestyle, both physically and mentally. But when you stop using your brain to its full potential, you could be opening yourself up to health risks. The good news is that exercise that helps keep your heart and body healthy are also good for your brain. Physical activity helps blood vessels stay in good shape, maintaining blood flow to the brain as well as helping keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels down. Some reports even suggest it can stave off dementia.
Researchers at Stanford University have also found that memory loss may be improved simply by doing mental exercises. Hobbies, stimulating conversations, reading, and doing crossword puzzles can all help keep your mind sharp. And why not use this chance when you’ve got more time to learn a new skill? While practising brain skills you’re already good at helps strengthen existing connections between brain cells, challenging your brain with new skills helps the cells to form new connections and gives your brain an even better workout. Remember: the more you use your brain, the better it works.
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 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017, Cause of Death 2016, ABS cat. No. 3303.0, September
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