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Health Education

Busting myths and aging well

July 12, 2023
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Two older adults on a hiking path

In this age of misinformation, it’s often difficult to parse out what’s real and what’s not in the world of personal health. TV is rife with commercials selling the latest supplement, and social media is full of charlatans making endless claims. Below, we’ve answered some of the most common questions that patients have asked our physicians.

“Is it true that you need supplements to stay healthy as you age?” 

This is actually not true. Short of having a vitamin deficiency or another health issue that’s been diagnosed by a doctor, there’s no need to buy extra vitamins or supplements. Talk to your doctor about any supplements you currently take to give a full picture of your health. 

“I’m healthy, with no serious diseases, so can I skip my annual physical? 

No, and this is even more important the older you are. Even if you feel healthy, keep that appointment on the calendar to ensure your medications are in order, doses are correct, and you can even ask if it’s possible to lower your copay. It’s also a good idea to get annual blood work to track your cholesterol, blood pressure, thyroid, and other indicators of health. 

“I’m losing my memory but that’s normal for people in their 70s, right?” 

False–sort of. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, approximately 40% of people will have some form of memory loss after age 65. But even if we experience memory loss, chances are that it is more mild, and it is still unlikely to be dementia. The Cleveland Clinic has a helpful list of questions to see if memory loss you experience is minor or something more serious. 

True or false: Only older adults are increasingly being scammed via texts and email. 

False. Everyone of every generation is at risk, and scams are only getting more sophisticated. Older adults, especially when isolated, often don’t want to worry people or ask for help, but even younger generations are getting duped by phone calls, text, direct mail, and emails. Stay up to date by checking the AARP’s website, which has resources to avoid scams. 

Is substance abuse typically a problem only for the younger generation? 

No, and nor is alcohol abuse. During the pandemic we saw that many were isolated, bored, spending more time at home, and therefore drinking more. In fact, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 7.6% of adults 50 and older had an alcohol use disorder in the past year. This is lower than their younger peers, but it has increased in recent years. 

“If I eat really well, I don’t have to worry as much about exercising, right?” 

Incorrect! Also, no one has to run marathons or lift heavy weights to gain benefit from exercise. Walking 30 minutes a day (even 10 minutes three times per day) can make a big impact on your health. Increasing physical activity such as walking to get your mail, or around the block, can add up if done regularly. Talk to your doctor about what exercise is safe for you. Also, exercise assists with balance, bone health and flexibility, and this is all beneficial in reducing risk and injuries of falls. 

“I don’t need sunscreen. I don’t live in a very sunny place and besides, I have darker skin.” 

Absolutely not. In fact, seniors have more sensitive skin, and it can often be extra thin from taking blood thinners or other medications. A minimum of SPF 30 should be worn every day. The best sunscreen is the one you’ll use, so find a formula that you love and make it a habit. Often people think only fair-skinned people who burn need sunscreen, but that’s false as well. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, people of color are typically diagnosed later, when it is harder to treat.  

“My blood pressure meds worked so well that my BP is down, so I stopped taking them.” 

This is one of the most dangerous myths, and it is very common. Research has shown that roughly half of patients don’t take their medication as directed. This can be extremely detrimental to your health. Make sure to speak to your doctor if costs, side effects, or any other concerns are becoming obstacles to taking your prescribed medications. 

True or false: BMI and weight are the best indicators of health. 

It’s a bit more nuanced than that. While being severely overweight certainly raises risk for heart disease, on the flip side, some people are what we call “skinny fat,” meaning they often have high blood pressure, heart disease, or any number of other health issues that they mistakenly think only occur when someone is overweight. This is another reason why it’s so important to keep up your wellness visits to your doctor since weight is only one part of the overall picture. 

“I suspected something was wrong, but men can’t get breast cancer, so I didn’t even think that was a possibility.” 

It’s rare, but it does happen. The CDC has shown that 1 in 100 breast cancer patients are men. Be aware of the symptoms if you notice any of the following: lumps or swelling in the breast area; redness or flaky skin in the breast; irritation or dimpling of breast skin; nipple discharge or pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area. 

“At my age, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) aren’t something I have to worry about anymore.” 

False. In recent years we’ve seen a troubling trend. According to the 2020 CDC annual Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) Surveillance Report, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis rates have increased dramatically among older adults (65+). Many may not know that older adults can increase their risk of heart disease and cancer as a result of these STIs. It’s important to remember to use condoms, since they are important to prevent the spread of STIs and not just for birth control. 

“I’ve been smoking since my teens and I’m in my 50s, so isn’t the damage already done?” 

It’s never too late to quit smoking. We start to see health improving, believe it or not, within 24 hours after someone quits. According to The American Lung Association, 20 minutes after quitting, your heart rate drops to a normal level, and within 24 hours after quitting, the risk of heart attack is significantly reduced. Also, vaping is not a healthier alternative. Data shows links to chronic lung disease and asthma, and associations between dual use of e-cigarettes and smoking with cardiovascular disease.  

“We all have issues with our hearing as we age. I guess I’m just stuck with the hearing aid I’ve had since 2016.” 

This is absolutely not true, and it’s important to note that lack of hearing increases isolation. Make sure to get your hearing checked as often as you get your annual eye exams. In addition, Medicare covers hearing exams and in some circumstances may cover hearing aids, so talk to your doctor and make sure to explore the newest ones available, instead of relying on one from years ago. 

What about incontinence and bladder function? What can I do to help that as I age? 

Incontinence is common as we get older, but it is not a given that everyone will experience this. It can happen for a variety of reasons, so talk to your provider if you feel this is affecting your daily quality of life. 

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