Two-thirds of older Americans take part in leisure-time physical activities, but poor nutrition remains a problem, especially when it comes to fruit and vegetables, according to the latest snapshot of aging.
Doctors and communities should encourage older Americans to adopt healthier lifestyles, advises a study Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Merck Institute of Aging & Health.
"They are not doing all they can, not only to enjoy more years in their lives but also more life in their years," said Dr. Terrie Fox Wetle, president of the Gerontological Society of America, which released the survey at its annual meeting.
Among the study's findings:
Making small lifestyle changes, which include getting regular medical screenings, "can dramatically reduce a person's risk for most chronic diseases," including heart disease, cancer and stroke, the study said.
"It's very simple stuff. This is not rocket science. These are very practical and relatively simple changes people can make," said Dr. Patricia Barry, executive director of MIAH. That includes eating better and getting more exercise.
All Americans can benefit from healthier lifestyles, but with older adults the impact is more pronounced, said Maggie Moore, a public health adviser with the CDC.
"Sometimes you can see more marked improvements in functioning when they are physically active. Maybe they won't have to use a cane anymore, so it might be a little more obvious," Moore said.
The report calls for doctors, communities, and family members to achieve these goals through better communication. Doctors should take more time to counsel patients, communities should publicize the benefits of preventive screenings and families should monitor their relative's aches and pains, which can indicate more serious problems.
By 2030, when the youngest Baby Boomers have reached 65, the number of older Americans is expected to hit 71 million, or about 20 percent of the population. Medicare spending is expected to double by 2012 from the $252.2 billion spent in 2002, the report says.
Lenke Marko, 67, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, is looking to join a water therapy program. But the daylong journey across the District of Columbia on public transportation makes it nearly impossible, she says.
She also would like to speak with a doctor about her general wellness, but there's never time during appointments, she said. The only way to help yourself is to take charge of your own health, she said.
"I found out that you have to ask about things, because otherwise you don't learn. There are a lot of things I missed," Marko said.