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January 13, 2006
ST. LOUIS -- When baby boomers heard Bob Dylan sing “Forever Young” more than 30 years ago, it probably didn’t occur to them that they would someday qualify for membership in AARP. This year, the first batch of boomers – some 3.4 million of them born in 1946 -- turns 60 and most aren’t willing to settle into a rocking chair existence.
“You work all your lives so you can enjoy your retirement. To do that, health and vitality are important,” says Margaret-Mary Wilson, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine and geriatrics at Saint Louis University and a SLUCare physician.
“If you come to us for medical care when you’re healthy, we can help you get to a very healthy and vibrant old age.”
Dr. Wilson says there are six questions that everyone pushing the sixth decade should ask his or her physician to reveal hidden health problems.
- What are the chances that I would break my hip if I fell?
Hip fractures are the most serious consequence of osteoporosis, a disease that makes our bones brittle, thin and easily broken. Of all older adults who suffer hip fractures, nearly a quarter are dead in a year.
“We hit our peak bone mass when we’re 30. By the time we get to 60, our chances of having osteoporosis are pretty significant,” she says.
You can have a bone density test to check the thickness of your bones. Exercise, calcium supplements, good nutrition and medication can increase the thickness of bones to make them stronger and less likely to break.
- Is it normal that I’m making more trips to the bathroom than I used to?
“Urinary urgency –- the feeling that you frequently have to rush to the bathroom –- increases during the 40s and 50s. The fear with that is that it may get worse,” Dr. Wilson says. “A lot of patients have the warning signs, but are not aware that if they start early enough with treatment, they can prevent urinary incontinence from happening.”
The condition is fairly common, occurring in 16 percent of men and 17 percent of women of all ages. “The incidence is way higher as we age. But the good news is treatment is available.”
- Should my sex drive be what it was 20 years ago?
Loss of libido can be a sign of serous health problems, Wilson says. Men might not be as interested in sex because of erectile dysfunction or low levels of the hormone testosterone. Both men and women might have diabetes, depression or a thyroid disorder. Loss of interest in sex also can be side effect to several medications.
“The bottom line is it’s worth it to ask questions. Some of the causes are fixable,” Wilson says. “People shouldn’t resign themselves to the myth that as they age, everything falls apart.”
- I keep misplacing my keys. Should I be worried?
Probably not, Wilson says, particularly if you eventually remember where you put them. But you should at least mention your concern to your doctor.
As we get older the hard drive of our brain doesn’t access information as quickly as it used to. Eventually, though, most of us remember. While the time delay is annoying, it doesn’t mean we’re in the early stages of dementia.
“A lot of people don’t address it and live in fear. If it is something that needs medical attention, it’s much better to find the causes early to prevent permanent damage. Thyroid disorder, vitamin deficiencies and depression can cause problems with short-term memory. And even if it is dementia, 10 percent of the cases may be reversible with early diagnosis.”
- What’s the best way for me to control my weight?
Steer clear of restrictive diets, Wilson says.
“Weight loss in older adults -– even intentional weight loss –- can make them frail, which can be deadly. A better approach is to exercise, which builds muscles, strengthens your bones and increases your energy level,” Wilson says. “Ask your doctor for an exercise prescription. That way you’ll be more likely to stick with a plan.”
- Should I be concerned that I’m having problems concentrating?
It’s worth checking out because concentration problems could be a side effect of medication, a symptom of thyroid disease, emotional overload from caring for an aging parent or a sign of depression, Wilson says.
A primary care physician can do a simple screening for depression in two minutes. “A lot of people will never bring up the fact that they feel depressed because they don’t feel it’s a disease. It’s unfortunate because treatment can relieve their suffering,” she says.
Wilson says many people gloss over these six indicators that health isn’t what it could be -– and shouldn’t.
“Boomers have never accepted things without questioning,” she says. “There’s no reason why they should accept health problems as a natural consequence of aging.”
For more information about the services offered by SLUCare, the physician practice of Saint Louis University School of Medicine, visit the World Wide Web at www.slucare.edu or phone the SLUCare Call Center at 314.977.4440 or 877.977.4440.