Aging Requires New Outlooks as Bodies Change
Age, as the saying goes, may be nothing but a number, but it is an important number. And as we get older, men and women alike may find themselves reckoning with obstacles they haven’t encountered before as they engage in activities that have always been enjoyable.
But those obstacles aren’t insurmountable. In fact, we’ve talked to four experts in three separate areas that readers commonly ask us about—diet, exercise and sex—to weigh in on healthy aging.
You may have already noticed that the big Tex-Mex dinner or the barbecue lunch you have sometimes causes some discomfort—and certainly doesn’t metabolize the same way as it did when you were 20 or 30. But what changes can you make to your diet to not only improve the quantity of your life, but the quality? We asked Denice Taylor, a registered dietitian with Texas Health Arlington.
How do your nutritional needs change due to aging?
Taylor: “The biggest thing to remember is that adults need fewer total calories, but more nutrients—especially B vitamins, calcium, protein and vitamin D.
Many adults are having their vitamin D levels checked now, and are finding that they are low. Older adults need three servings of vitamin D-fortified, fat-free milk or yogurt to help meet their nutritional needs. They can add in other calcium-rich foods like fortified cereals and dark green leafy vegetables, too.
But the big takeaway is that you need fewer calories, but those calories need to have the most nutrients in them.”
Say someone has a health scare or notices that their friends are starting to have them, and realizes that their diet isn’t the best. Is it too late?
Taylor: “It’s never too late. But we do need different nutrients as we get older. It’s important that people avoid fad diets. Stay away from them. But they do need to eat healthy so they can protect their bodies.
You really want to avoid losing lean body mass—which is why a fad diet is never a good idea if you’re older. You need that lean body mass to keep doing your daily activities.
And you can still enjoy barbecue—just get smaller portions, and stick to turkey and chicken. The salt and fat aren’t good, but small portions are better.
And make burgers at home—you can control the fat and the seasoning, and you can use whole grain buns, and experiment with healthier toppings.”
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that seniors should make sure their diets have plenty of calcium and vitamin D, vitamin B12, fiber, and potassium. The academy also recommends keeping an eye on what kind of fats are in your food.
“Foods that are low in saturated fats and trans fat help reduce your risk of heart disease,” the AND says. “Most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Check the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels for total fat and saturated fat.”
The academy also has recommendations for packing more nutrients into your meals, such as incorporating beans, eggs, peanut butter and dry milk.
To get a handle on changes that might need to happen as we age in regard to exercise, we reached out to Rebecca Slemmons, fitness manager at Texas Health Willow Park.
What should we keep in mind about exercise concerns due to aging?
Slemmons: “First, ability. Due to normal aging, our ability to do certain types of exercises may change due to injuries, illness, medications, etc. The normal tendency is to just quit doing the exercise—don’t quit! Just modify or change. There are a large variety of modifications for most exercises, so find something that works and go with it.
Second, get past the past. Some people will stop exercising simply because they can’t do what they did when they were younger. High-intensity exercises like weighted pull-ups, box jumps or running five miles a day may have been a good exercise for you in your 20s or 30s but not necessarily beneficial for you now.
Determine what your goals are, as well as your limitations, and put together a workout that meets your new goals. If you don’t know where to begin, scheduling a consultation with a certified personal trainer is a good place to start.
Make sure to include some light to moderate strength training two to three days per week. This will help to keep your muscles strong and your metabolism up, and possibly improve or stop the likelihood of osteoporosis.
Third, change is good—and okay. Maybe you saw aquatics activities such as swimming and water aerobics as an old person’s workout when you were younger. One, you missed out! Aquatic training is one of the most challenging activities you can do. And two, start now! Not only is an aquatics workout challenging and beneficial, it’s also low impact so your joints are not stressed as much as they would be doing land-based activities.
Most importantly, remember that it’s okay to change and try new things. You don’t always have to go to the gym to exercise. Take up golf or tennis, join a walking or running club, try a yoga class or walk your dog. You’ll be surprised at how much fun you’ll have and stay fit at the same time.
Fourth, exercise for a lifetime. When we’re young, we exercise to improve in sports or other activities, to look good and fit, because we were told to by coaches or other adults—rarely is it to be healthy for our lifetime. If you’ve been active most of your life, continue; if you’ve never exercised, it’s never too late to start.
And eat for a lifetime. All of the above information is good but not complete without a healthy eating plan. You are what you eat, so take a good look at your diet and make improvements. Aging can cause an increase in illness or medication usage can increase, not only contributing to our body weight and physical abilities but also affecting our eating habits. Make healthy eating a priority.
Exercising for a lifetime can help improve depression and loneliness by giving you a new group of friends to spend time with, people who share your same interests. It can also positively affect your cholesterol and blood pressure, possibly enabling you to reduce or completely stop your medications.”
Slemmons suggests low-impact activities like golf, yoga, Pilates, walking, swimming, dance classes, light to moderate weight training, doubles tennis and bike riding for protecting joints and muscles. “Also low-impact cardio classes like Silver Sneakers or Young at Heart,” she says.
Light activities such as gardening/yard work, house cleaning, etc. will help to keep you active but they should not be considered a form of exercise but rather activities of daily living,” she adds.
Not only does the body change how the act of sex feels, but also how it works. But that doesn’t mean it has to end, either. We talked to Sheri Puffer, M.D., OB/GYN and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial, and Heather Bartos, M.D., OB/GYN and chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton, about what women should know about sex as they age.
How does sex change for a woman as she ages?
Puffer: “Sex can change drastically after menopause for a woman. Due to a lack of estrogen, the vaginal tissue can become dry and make intercourse very painful. Using lubrication and discussing hormone therapy with your gynecologist is important. Libido also can decrease as we age.”
Bartos: “A woman’s body is constantly changing! Puberty, pregnancy and then perimenopause/menopause all invite major hormonal changes that change a woman’s sex drive, ability to orgasm and ability to enjoy sex. These changes are normal and expected, but no one really ever talks about them. For older women, their mothers never shared how they coped with these changes (due to cultural differences at the time).”
What kind of conversations should she be having with her gynecologist?
Puffer: “Hopefully your OB/GYN is asking you about your sexual health, and you can discuss any discomforts you are having.”
Bartos: “Just start by bringing it up! I think many women shy away from talking about sex, but that’s a gynecologist’s expertise! If we can’t help, we can refer to a sex therapist (if the problem is stress or emotional issues). There are a number of modalities we can employ to help. Men have Viagra but women rarely bring up their unique sexual needs.”
What is one of the biggest questions you get about sexual health and aging, and what is your response?
Puffer: “How can I stop it from hurting when we have intercourse? I discuss lubrication and vaginal estrogen to help.”
Bartos: “‘Am I normal?’—that’s the biggest question I get. I always tell women, ‘it’s normal until you feel it isn’t.’ In other words, it’s fine to have a ‘dry spell’ or feel it takes longer to orgasm as long as the issue is short-lived. If it’s affecting you or your partner, then it’s time we discuss it. Sometimes it’s a simple fix such as a new lubricant, sometimes it’s more involved, requiring a detailed look at the medications a patient takes daily.”
And women aren’t alone in finding that sex changes as you get older. The National Institute on Aging says many men find that erectile dysfunction dramatically impacts their self-esteem and sex life as they get older.
“As men get older, impotence (also called erectile dysfunction or ED) becomes more common,” the NIA says. “ED is the loss of ability to have and keep an erection for sexual intercourse. ED may cause a man to take longer to have an erection. His erection may not be as firm or as large as it used to be.
“The loss of erection after orgasm may happen more quickly, or it may take longer before another erection is possible,” the agency continues. “ED is not a problem if it happens every now and then, but if it occurs often, talk with your doctor.”
The NIA also says that it’s not just changes in reproductive organs that can affect sexuality as we age. Arthritis, chronic pain, diabetes, heart disease and incontinence can also affect sex, but many of those obstacles can be helped through changes in position, medication and other ways, so consulting with your doctor is a good idea.
Do you need help navigating the natural changes that come with aging, or need help with improving your health for years to come? Texas Health has geriatric medicine specialists throughout North Texas.