Positive aging: Life after 50

By the time we celebrate our 50th birthday, most of us will be starting to suffer the consequences of modern lives in the fast lane. The sins of our youth; too much coffee, alcohol, stress, smoking, lack of sleep and exercise start to catch up with us and the metaphorical chickens come home to roost.
Rather than simply accepting our best years are behind us, it’s the perfect time to make crucial life changes that will affect the quality of life we will lead in the future. The statistics are irrefutable; we’re living longer lives than ever before and having to work much for both financial and social reasons. Retirement may not be as stimulating as we would like and the cost of living seems only to spiral upwards.

Modern medicine is reflecting the needs of people wanting to live and work longer. Preventive care has now become a major focus for both the pharmaceutical industry the government and GPs as well.

Balance is Key

Finding the right balance in our lives is vital if we are to make the most of our extended lifetimes. We need to think smarter about what we eat, what we do for exercise, how much stress we choose to accept and how we combine all of these things in the work environment as we try to stay active and maintain a good quality of life.

There are so many aspects and issues affecting older people and a maze of conflicting information but this column aims to cut through the hype, the marketing and the misconceptions to provide solid health information. Everyone wants to be able to enjoy life in a condition that is pain free and positive. Yet you do not have to go very far to see people who haven’t been able to make this transition. Footpaths are filled with elderly people struggling with obesity and damaged joints- on motorized mini cars and walking frames if they are lucky, or restricting themselves to motor transport if they are still able to keep their licenses. Public transport is way too rough and inconsiderate for the majority of elderly and it is an absolute tragedy that when they can no longer manage to get out for themselves they are doomed to live in small apartments relying on meals on wheels or kindly friends and relatives to come to them.
The benefits to reviewing our health, our medication and our fitness far outweigh the trifling inconvenience of taking the time to do this. How we live now really determines how we will ultimately deteriorate in the future.

Information Overload

There is so much information on prevention, treatments and cures for just about everything that ails us. Equally though, a lot of misinformation makes it hard to know what is valid and helpful and what is not. While we are young and agile enough to make choices- it is harder and harder to Google and understand which of the 13,000 websites actually are of use.
As a GP and working in the pharmaceutical industry, I have seen and studied the results of actions that help people to get their lives in balance. It is not that easy even with training to know what the best path to improved living is- but there are certainly some Golden Rules that seem to hold out in all clinical studies.

Concern about Drug Use

The first thing to overhaul your health is to take a long hard look at the drugs you take. Not just prescription products, but pharmacist recommendations, heath food supplements and recreational chemicals. List them all - then think again … for you are bound to have more chemicals entering your body than you ever realised. Make a start though and just realise you are going to be a work in progress if you sort your life out.

Do not feel noble because you only buy natural – this is a delusion. A chemical is a chemical whether it is refined to stringent standards by a pharmaceutical company or gathered ethically and boxed in ecofriendly packing by natives in a field in Southern Cambodia. Both herbs and drugs have significant and possibly deleterious effects.

Have a close look at your smoking drinking, herb and pill intake and ask yourself one question. Do you really need this?

If you do not gain an obvious benefit, you should consider what the potential risks of taking it may be. If you can’t justify it, then remove it- either gradually or cold-turkey. In the case of prescribed or pharmacy generated products you may need advice on cutting the dose. Find this out and take action. But do not be complacent- be well informed and use your GP as a resource to guide you in your life choices. The first step is to take responsibility for yourself and get the best possible perspective on all the advice that is available.

Of course not all drugs are bad for us – and many quite simply are life-saving. But as we get older, our metabolism alters and this can change the response to any medication. This is worth thinking about. As well as the age- related alteration in our biochemistry, many people accumulate pills. One doctor prescribes one drug; a hospital visit leaves you a few others. It’s not uncommon for a 50 year old to end up in hospital with a list of thirty or so tablets a day- half for prevention and the other half for a range of ailments that may have in fact been cured.
It is frightening when you think of the possible interactions of some of these tablets. Think about the people in your family and ask what pills the older members are on. It’s surprising to find out the answer! It’s now not unusual for older people to become ill simply because of their accumulated medical treatments or indeed the interaction of these with their diets. We all know horror stories about Warfarin treatment! Yet we also know the benefits of blood pressure reduction and cholesterol monitoring.

It’s impossible to say how much suffering is caused by drugs incorrectly combined and more often than not, inappropriately taken. How many of us stop to consider every tablets prescribing information? The combination with respect to food and the avoidance of certain foods all are important. But the small print is too wordy to take in when we do not need reading glasses. So when we do have trouble seeing and finding time to read details it’s even more unlikely we will take things as recommended.

So my first message is this:

Think about the Drugs you put into your Body.

Consider how much benefit and risk they may pose – especially in combination and reduce your intake.

If you are worried talk to your GP, pharmacist or even contact the manufacturer and get second and third opinions if you are still unsure. Life is always changing and scientific theories vary from year to year, so there are no guidelines fixed for living an optimal life. It is all about finding what works for you- and equally what doesn’t. Do not be swayed by sensationalist headlines in the paper and on TV. Dramatic and urgent sound bites are seldom the fountain of truth. We survived the Bird Flu epidemic, fluoride in water, mercury in our teeth and childhood vaccinations. Whatever the media expounds is rarely the voice of reason.

Getting older is largely made possible by the availability of drugs – but we have to be smarter and wiser about how we use them – and not let them take control of us!

It’s Your Responsibility

At no stage in our lives can we give up the responsibility of our health to others. The paternalistic model of health care has been totally outmoded both by technology and financial considerations. Our life is in our own hands ultimately and with careful advice and personal reflection, we can find the right combination of internal and external methods in order to become healthy. The first step to positive aging is to work out which pills we need and what we can safely avoid.

Author's Bio: 

Dr Jean Yarrow is a medical doctor with a passionate interest in aging.