Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — What happens as one grows old is more than just genetics. People have a great deal of say in how well they'll age.
It hinges largely on staying active physically and mentally, according to Dr. Edward Wyne, geriatrician at the Intermountain Senior Clinic in Murray.
He recommends lots of interaction with other people and encourages his patients to volunteer at schools, homeless shelters and other places they find interesting. The physical side, he noted, doesn't have to be difficult or exhausting. "It can be as simple as walking."
Health issues for senior citizens — from depression to dementia, high blood pressure to how to care for an aging parent — will be the topic of Saturday's Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Hotline. From 10 a.m. to noon, Wyne and Dr. Crystal Owens, medical director at the Alta View Hospital Senior Clinic, will take phoned-in questions. The number is 1-800-925-8177. You can also post questions during those hours on the Deseret News Facebook page, www.facebook.com/desnews.
"Very clearly, it's not just genetics. I'll see a patient who's 95 who says 'mom died at 70 and dad at 80.' Why did you live so long? Often, the answer is 'I just kept busy,'" Wyne said.
With effort, people of all ages can make improvement in their health. Within three months, he said, the gains are noticeable. Even most with physical limitations can do it. Those who can't walk well can try pool aerobics, taking the weight off their joints while they build some strength. Doing exercises like tai chi will improve balance and coordination and lessen the risk of falls.
Depression and social isolation are both challenges to the mental and physical wellbeing of seniors. "Depression is a real illness in the elderly. It probably doesn't occur at a substantially higher rate than in other age groups, but it's a significant number. We see people slowing down, withdrawing. It's treatable," he said.
Owens describes situations: A spouse dies, a family moves away, a senior is ill and becomes homebound. Isolation can be a component of depression. It can also cause what appears to be memory loss — "a pseudo-dementia," Owens said. "If you treat that, the cognition comes back. That's a common problem we deal with. We also see that when people move into facilities. You think a facility offers socialization, but for some it's difficult to move into a different environment and make friends. They're around people, but there's still isolation."
Hearing and vision loss can both contribute to isolation, in addition to the other problems they create. That adds some extra urgency to screenings for two common causes of vision loss, glaucoma and macular degeneration. There are treatments for both, so knowing it is happening is important. As for hearing, said Owens, most seniors don't want to get their hearing screened, but they should. "A good audiologist can teach you ways to maximize the hearing you have.... You can make some adjustments in how you pay attention and how you listen to help reduce the problems you have with hearing loss, even without hearing aids."
Some dementia, though, is not pseudo. Of these dementias, about 80 percent is Alzheimer's, while vascular dementia, related to stroke, makes up another 15 percent. The other 5 percent are made up of rarer conditions. And sometimes it overlaps, Owens said.
While dementias may be similar, what type is actually important. There are medications that help slow Alzheimer's disease process. If dementia is vascular, it's important to reduce stroke risk factors and slow progression. There is also a difference in prognosis.
Wyne said seniors worry about memory lapses, fearful it portends a dementia. But people developing Alzheimer's typically know something is seriously wrong. "It's not just forgetting," said Wyne, but getting lost, not remembering how to do things, losing the ability to do things in sequence. That is, in fact, "a better clue than just memory loss."
The United States has more senior citizens than Canada has people and the fastest-growing segment of the population is those 85 and older.
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