The world is perilous enough for the average senior citizen without a highly contagious, potentially deadly new virus causing a global outbreak of disease.
But such is life in 2020-21, and elderly men and women who want to live to tell about it are advised to take precautions that include boosting their bodies’ immunity.
Experts agree that a healthy immune system is an important line of defense in warding off sickness—a form of secondary prevention that can spell the difference between a minor illness and a possibly catastrophic one.
The key is resilience, Dr. Nathaniel Chin tells his elderly patients. He serves as a geriatrician with UW Health, the integrated health system of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“As we age, our bodies change; and the changes aren’t all good,” Chin says. “For example, after the age of 50 we lose one percent of our muscle mass every year. After the age or 60 or 65, there are some cognitive changes, thinking changes that happen because of our brain shrinking. And our cells that fight disease start to wane in effectiveness.”
But there is hope, Chin says, that lies simply in living a healthier life with regular exercise and better nutrition.
Physical activity builds immunity, so regular exercise, including walking, is critical.
Chin tells seniors to start with whatever they can do safely, then gradually increase the reps and time spent exercising.
The weekly goal remains the same whether a person is age 65 or 35: 150 total minutes of moderate aerobic activity, with 1-2 days of strength and/or balance training.
Seniors should push themselves, but be realistic, Chin adds.
“You must consider your own body and what it can take, and you need to be patient and careful,” he says. “For example, if you can walk, walk. But if, say, you have bad knees, consider low-impact pool activities or a stationary bike.
He also says that the benefits of exercise are cumulative—that, for example, three 10-minute sessions of physical activity offer essentially the same heart benefit as one 30-minute workout.
That covers cardiovascular health, but Chin reminds his patients about building muscle mass and improving balance.
“Lifting weights is great, but consider yoga or tai chi to maintain muscle mass,” he says. “What’s important is that people need to do something they can sustain, so the activity should be enjoyable — preferably with others if that keeps them motivated.”
He adds that seniors trying weight lifting or any strength-building exercises for the first time (and that includes re-starting a regimen after years of layoff) should consult an expert first, whether that is a primary care physician or a fitness specialist at a health club.
Fuel for life
As important as exercise is, so is what seniors put in their mouths.
“There are a lot of ‘don’ts’ when it comes to food,” Chin says. “One thing I say first is stop drinking soda. It’s a really common thing, but it has a lot of sugar, a lot of artificial sweeteners. It’s a lot of processed product.”
Chin and others in the field agree that staying away from fast-food restaurants and shopping smart at the grocery store is important.
Dr. Susan Besser, a family practitioner of some four decades, offers that advice to her patients — young and old — at Mercy Personal Physicans at Overlea, located in Baltimore.
“We’re all human and need to acknowledge that we cheat a bit now and then,” she says. “But make sure you keep your weight at or near a normal BMI, which is less than 25. At or less than 25 — it seems in longitudinal studies, the best promoter of long-term health is keeping your weight down.”
Experts agree to stick to the perimeters of the typical grocery store, where shoppers find fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats, poultry and fish. The inner aisles of a store is where processed foods — typically loaded with sugar, salt and artificial ingredients — are found.
But with plenty of good advice out there, why are so many seniors not healthier?
“All I can do is offer up the best information out there and be supportive of my patients and cheer for them,” Besser adds. “If they come into the office and I find they’ve lost weight, I will literally cheer for them, a standing ovation.
“I don’t expect them to weigh what they did when they were 18, because we’re not 18 anymore,” she continues. “Our bodies don’t work like that, and we shouldn’t expect them to. All we can do is be the healthiest we can be under the current circumstances.”