Ten insights from the UC Davis healthy aging education program

Healthy seniors walking on a sandy beachThe life expectancy of an American born in 1776 was a paltry 36 years.

But by 1950 – the thick of the post-World War II baby boom – it had nearly doubled to 68 years.

About 15 percent of the U.S. population is now age 65 and over, according to a federal report released last year, and by 2030 these older Americans are expected to represent roughly a fifth of the nation’s populace.  Meanwhile, persons over age 85 are currently the fastest growing segment of the U.S population.

So healthy aging seems as important as ever – but how exactly to go about it?

Like so many things, aging well is a process that’s often part art and part science. To lend a hand, here are 10 insights and pointers excerpted from a list of evidence-based strategies compiled by Barbara Neyhart, a board-certified geriatrician who directs UC Davis Health’s acclaimed Mini Medical School. This special community education program focuses on normal human aging and avoidance of the diseases we associate with aging.

Note: you can also receive more healthy aging insights on the program's video page.

1. There's no aging 'master clock'

red alarm clockHow our bodies manifest aging is subject to a huge amount of individual variation.

According to conclusions drawn from America's longest-running scientific study of human aging, the National Institute on Aging's Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, there is no "master clock" or evidence that our organs are aging at the same rate, Neyhart says – and chronological age is an imperfect predictor of performance.

2. Stay strong

Muscle strength declines 30 to 40 percent as men age, and decreases somewhat less in women. Ask your physician about strengthening exercises.

3. Stay cool

Sweat glands tend to disappear or become non-functional, impeding thermoregulation and creating a greater risk of heatstroke. Certain medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter, can add to the danger.

4. Stay hydrated

Glass of ice waterAlong these lines, our kidneys also tend to lose ability to maximally dilute and concentrate urine as we age. The reduced sense of thirst that is common among the aged also increases dehydration risk.

5. Check the label

Ability to taste salt and bitterness declines somewhat, which can make it more difficult to discern sodium consumption by taste – making it even more important to read food labels.

Nearly a third of U.S. adults have elevated blood pressure, only half of which have it under control. One in five adults with hypertension is unaware!

6. Stay sharp

Our brains at age 90 weigh 10 percent less than at age 20.  Cellular losses are regional (the “executive control” area and some memory centers in particular). 

7. Think visually

Word retrieval declines as we age, and especially for proper names. Verbal memory also becomes more difficult, and information is retained better if seen than heard.

So, you may remember a name you see (on a name tag or business card) much better than a name you hear.

8. Know your blood sugar

diabetes phrases in word cloudAsking your primary care provider “Is my diabetes screening up to date?” is appropriate. According to a 2014 study, three out of 10 Americans with diabetes do not know it (!) – and the majority of those undiagnosed had visited their health care provider twice or more in the previous year.

Older adults with diabetes are at risk for heart attacks, stroke and kidney failure. Seniors with diabetes are also more likely to have memory problems, depression and difficulty with self-care.

9. Get screened for the most preventable cancer

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women in the U.S. Detection via screening can catch "pre-cancers" or early-stage colon cancers, and such early diagnoses often result in a complete surgical cure.

If you are opposed to colonoscopy for colon cancer screening, be aware that other means of screening are available.

10. Check your meds (all of them)

over-the-counter medicationsMaintain a current list of all medications that you are taking, both prescribed and over-the-counter (including any dietary supplements).

There are computer programs that many clinicians and most pharmacists can access, into which they can enter your list of medications and supplements to see if you are at increased risk for an adverse drug reaction.

For additional insights from past Mini Medical School lectures and presentations, visit the program's video page.

About the Mini Medical School

Since 2002, UC Davis has opened the doors of its School of Medicine to give our neighbors an opportunity to attend classes focused on normal human aging and prevention of the diseases commonly associated with aging.

Classes are taught by top academic physicians and scientists, and instruction is at the level of a first- or second-year medical student.

Although the program is ideally geared for the foresighted middle-ager and novice senior, there are no age limits to attend the Mini Medical School. Learn more on the program website.

Related content

Know your diabetes risks

One in three U.S. adults is prediabetic

Older adults need special care in hot weather

Learn to recognize heat-related illness

UC Davis Health's Mini Medical School