Prescription for a longer life: See a doctor

Screenings: Doing things like wearing a seatbelt, stopping smoking and getting a yearly checkup after age 50 are very good for your longevity.

Life After 50

November 04, 2001|By Danica Coto | Danica Coto,Special to the Sun

Baby boomers may still be far away from creaky knees and daily pill popping, but for the millions of people who are entering their 50s, there's an easy way to live longer and qualify for those early bird specials.

Go see a doctor.

Hollie Solomon can attest to such a plan. The 62-year-old visits the doctor four times a year, following the recommendation that anyone older than 50 should be screened yearly to prevent certain health problems.

Solomon started doing his annual screenings at 54, and has since followed a simple recipe for maintaining a healthy life: No drinking, no smoking and no more fried foods.

"It's better for your health, and you worry less," says the Oakland Park, Fla., resident.

He is at risk for some of the three leading causes of death and illness in those 65 and older: heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Although most of these can be prevented through yearly health screenings starting at age 50, few get tested regularly.

Eighty percent of elderly people in the United States have a chronic health condition, and 50 percent have at least two. This accounts for $300 billion of U.S. health care expenditures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"They should not neglect themselves," said Doctor Ali Ghahramani, a cardiologist at North Ridge Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Even if they feel fine, they should go see their physicians."

Blood pressure and sugar should be checked once a year, he said, and a stress test should be done to assess physical endurance. People should have several readings of their blood pressure in one day before reaching any conclusions. "One reading once a year doesn't mean anything," he said, adding that machine readings at stores are not reliable.

Risk factors for developing heart disease include smoking, stress, obesity and diabetes. People are encouraged to follow a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables and to exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

Colon cancer is another illness that is more common in people who have a family history of it. The best test to detect polyps is a colonoscopy, which is usually done every 10 years, but unfortunately, the most common screening is stool studies done every three years.

"It's analogous to a woman having a mammography of one breast instead of two," said Dr. Eric Weiss, a colorectal surgeon at the Weston (Fla.) Cleveland Clinic.

Colorectal cancer is preventable, Weiss said, and although studies show that fiber supplements are good, he recommends a healthy diet with fruit and vegetables.

People 50 and older can also benefit from getting pneumonia vaccines every five years and a glaucoma test every two years. A thyroid, lymph node and stress test is also recommended, along with an EKG, said Leah Baker, a physician and internist at the Boca Raton (Fla.) Community Hospital. It's helpful to carry a miniaturized EKG reading in one's wallet, which would help doctors in an emergency, she said.

Another test that should be done at the age of 50 is a baseline bone density study.

There are two peaks in osteoporosis occurrence: one is during a woman's menopause and the other is in 80-year-old men and women. Weight-bearing exercise and calcium and vitamin D supplements for both men and women, and hormone replacement treatment for women during menopause, can decrease the chance of osteoporosis.

Risk factors include having thyroid conditions and asthma or lupus, which are treated with steroid medication that can decrease bone mass.

Women are also at risk for breast and ovarian cancer after 50, and men for prostate and rectal cancer, said Nicholas Tranakas, surgical oncologist and medical director for cancer services at North Broward Hospital District in Florida. Yearly mammograms, Pap smears and the CA 125 blood test that checks for cancer antigens in women is recommended, and prostate cancer screenings for men, Tranakas said.

"It's kind of difficult to convince them to come in when they're feeling fine," he said. "It's like pulling teeth almost on a daily basis."

Danica Coto is a reporter with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

RECOMMENDED HEALTH SCREENINGS

Yearly tests before turning 50:

* Have an EKG (electrocardiogram)

Yearly tests after turning 50:

* Blood pressure

* Blood test to check sugar levels and cholesterol

* Check lymph nodes

* Stress test to determine physical fitness

* Baseline bone density study

Yearly test for men:

* Rectal exam and blood test to check for prostate cancer

Yearly tests for women:

* Mammogram

* Pap smear

* Thyroid check

Every two years:

* Check for glaucoma

Every five years:

* Pneumonia vaccines

Every 10 years:

* Colonoscopy (or stool study every three years)

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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