It is indeed an excellent time to reflect on the past year. (And wow, quite a lot to reflect on for 2020!)
And although one can set goals at any time of year, the start of the calendar year is a time that seems to inspire many people to think about their health and how to thrive over the coming year.
If better health while aging is important to you, here are my top ten suggestions for the coming year.
If you are in your sixties or older, you can consider these for your own healthy aging. Or, if you are concerned about an older parent’s health, you can help them address these over the coming year.
Just don’t resolve to address them all within the first few weeks of the year. Instead, it’s better to pace yourself, and pick 1-2 items to focus on each month.
10 Ways to Foster Better Health While Aging in 2021
1. Get the COVID-19 vaccine once it’s available. Even though it’s not yet clear just how effective it is in people over age 75+, it should reduce your risk of falling gravely ill with the coronavirus. And make no mistake about it: COVID is a dangerous disease and for most older adults, it makes sense to take steps to protect yourself.
Not only does getting vaccinated help protect you, but as more Americans get vaccinated, this will help us finally get the pandemic under control in the U.S.
And this is so, so important to the health and wellbeing of older adults, because until the pandemic is under control, it will be hard for older adults to be able to safely resume socializing and other activities that are essential to maintaining mental, cognitive, and physical health.
For more on the coronavirus vaccine, including my tutorial on how to review vaccine efficacy data to find out how well it works in people your age (or your parent’s age), see here: COVID Vaccination for Aging Adults: What to Know & Do.
And then remember: if you are an older adult, don’t assume the vaccine provides you with 95% protection from coronavirus (unless we get data showing that).
To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, even if you’re vaccinated, you’ll need to continue to wear masks, wash hands, and follow public health directives to reduce transmission and exposure. Although this is onerous, we’ll need to do this until our public health officials advise us that it’s finally no longer necessary to take these precautions.
2.Make sure you’re doing exercises that challenge leg strength and balance, for fall prevention. Poor leg strength and balance are a common cause of falls in older adults. So working to maintain this is especially important for those older adults who have either fallen over the past year, or feel afraid of falling.
Check on your strength and balance with these easy assessment tests: the Timed Up and Go, the Chair Rise, and the Four Stage Balance Test.
It’s best to do these with a professional, but you can also try them at home first, especially if another person is there to lend a hand.
If you seem low on strength or have poor balance, talk to your doctor or therapist about whether the Otago fall prevention exercises might be right for you. Another form of exercise proven to reduce falls is Tai Chi.
You can view videos showing the assessment exercises and the Otago exercises here.
You can also learn more about which forms of exercise are best maintaining mobility in this podcast episode, featuring geriatric physical therapist Tiffany Shubert: 052 – Maintaining Mobility & Preventing Falls in Aging: Myths & Truths.
3.Walk more. Walking can be an easy way for older adults to stay active. It’s also a form of exercise that can be easily combined with socializing: you can walk with a friend, or walk to visit a friend or other parts of your neighborhood.
Try using a step-tracker to find out how much you walk every day. You can use a low-tech pedometer, an activity bracelet such as a Fitbit, or a smartphone app.
Once you’ve figured out your average daily step count, make a plan to increase your walking by at least a little bit. A research study found that walking at least 6,000 steps/day was associated with less arthritis.
Optional: You can benefit even more from exercise by making sure you regularly engage in the four types of exercise recommended for older adults: strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility. Learn more about the four types of exercise older adults need.
4. Protect your brain — and your balance — by avoiding medications known to dampen brain function. Proper attention to medications is one of the top three actions recommended by National Academies of Medicine, to protect cognitive health while aging.
(For more on how cognition changes with aging, see: 6 Ways that Memory & Thinking Change with Normal Aging & What to Do About This.)
That’s because research has linked such medications to worse cognitive function, and sometimes to acceleration of cognitive decline.
Plus, most medications that are bad for the brain are also bad for balance. So there is a double benefit in spotting and minimizing these drugs.
Learn more about what medications to look out for here: 4 Types of Medication to Avoid if You’re Worried About Memory. This article also includes tips on what to do if you realize that you’ve been taking a medication that might be affecting brain function.
For more proven strategies on maintaining brain health, see How to Promote Brain Health.
5. Deprescribe if possible! Review all medications and identify those that may be potentially inappropriate or unnecessary. According to the CDC, every year 177,000 older adults visit the emergency room due to medication problems. Research has also found that “inappropriate prescribing” of drugs is very common.
Although geriatricians especially worry about medications that affect the brain and balance, older adults are also often harmed by blood-thinners, medication for blood pressure, insulin and other medications that lower blood sugar, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers (e.g. ibuprofen and naproxen).
To avoid excess risk or harm from medications, it’s best to periodically review the purpose and dosing of all medications. You will need to work with a doctor or pharmacist to do this, but it’s good to do a little homework beforehand. This helps ensure that nothing important falls through the cracks, and will help you better understand the treatment of your health conditions.
Learn a five-step process you can use here: How to Review Medications for Safety & Appropriateness in Aging.
You can also learn more about the most important medications to consider deprescribing here: Deprescribing: How to Be on Less Medication for Healthier Aging.
6. Start — or update — your personal health record. A personal health record is a way for you to keep your own copies of your own essential health information. This can be done with a paper file folder at home, or by keeping digital copies on your computer, or even by using a special service.
All your health information — which often comes from various doctors and clinics — should be kept in a single location that you control. (So accessing your records via your clinic’s patient portal is not the same thing as maintaining a personal health record.)
Personal health records can make it much easier for an older adult to quickly get the right care in the event of an emergency, a second opinion, or a change in doctors.
At a minimum, aim to get copies of all lab results and radiology results from the past two years.
For more on how to set up and maintain a personal health record, see this article: How to Use a Personal Health Record to Improve an Older Person’s Healthcare.
7. If you are on medication for high blood pressure, get a home blood pressure monitor and check your home blood pressure at least once a month.
High blood pressure is one of the most common conditions among older adults, but it’s surprisingly easy for it to be either over-treated (which can lead to falls) or under-treated (which can lead to strokes and heart problems).
Experts have long recommended that patients and doctors use home-based blood pressure measurements to guide care, because these are often more accurate than office-based measurements.
So if you haven’t already gotten in the habit of using a home blood pressure monitor, do it this year!
You can learn more about what to do (including which monitor I recommend) here: 6 Steps to Better High Blood Pressure Treatment for Older Adults.
8. Address or review your advance planning for health care. Advance care planning is a process of planning ahead, to ensure you get the right medical care in the event of a serious medical problem or life-threatening illness.
Since serious illnesses often leave people at least temporarily unable to tell doctors what they want, it’s important for everyone to have designated a durable power of attorney for healthcare. This is a person whom you’d trust to make medical decisions on your behalf.
A 2013 survey found that only 40.6% of adults over age 50 had completed an advance directive (sometimes called a “living will”). So this is an issue that most people need to address.
Furthermore, since people’s preferences for medical care often change as their health and abilities evolve, it’s essential to regularly review one’s advance care planning documents. It can be dangerous to rely on directives that were completed years ago, because they may no longer be a good fit for one’s current circumstances.
To help you address and review advance planning for healthcare, I highly recommend the PrepareForYourCare.org website. I’m especially a fan of their easy-to-use Advance Directives (I give them to all my patients!), which are available for almost all 50 states here.
I spell out a five-step process you can use here: Advance Planning for Healthcare.
9. Address or review your advance planning for finances. If you were injured or sick and couldn’t manage your finances, who would do this on your behalf?
Many people assume a spouse or family member would be able to take over, but this is often not possible without a durable power of attorney covering finances. (This leaves families stuck with having to request guardianship through the court system.)
Furthermore, many older adults eventually experience age-associated declines in financial abilities, which can make them vulnerable to financial losses or even exploitation by others.
Experts have estimated that every year, older adults lose 3-30 billion dollars due to exploitation and financial abuse.
For more on recognizing (and preventing!) financial exploitation, see Financial Exploitation in Aging: What to Know & What to Do.
Advance planning and simplifying one’s finances can help protect from late-life financial losses. For more on what to do, see Advance Planning for Legal and Financial Matters.
Enough about dutifully checking one’s health & planning ahead! Here are the fun suggestions:
10. Socialize (safely!), contribute, and nourish your soul.
Research has confirmed what many already knew: relationships and contributing to the world are key to maintaining well-being while aging.
Obviously, this has become much more challenging during the coronavirus pandemic! But it still should be possible to remain connected, especially if one takes advantage of outdoor spaces or technology to connect remotely.
And, even the humble telephone can be a powerful tool for keeping in touch.
It’s also important to keep engaging in those activities that feel nourishing to one’s soul. Sometimes these involve other people, but they might also be things you do just for your own engagement and pleasure.
So this year, be sure to take stock of how much time you spend with others. If you realize you often feel isolated or lonely, find ways to connect more with others. You can also consider calling the Friendship Line, a special non-profit service dedicated to supporting lonely older adults.
It’s also good to consider ways to contribute. Volunteering can be an excellent way to connect while bringing purpose to one’s life, but sometimes part-time work or leadership engagements are an option too. Encore.org is a wonderful organization helping people 50+ find “encore roles.”
And then take some time to think what activities bring you contentment and well-being. If you aren’t doing such activities at least a few times a week, ask yourself why. And then see what can be done about the whys.
Bonus idea: Brainstorm a life wishlist. Then go and do at least one thing on the list.
I was really touched a few years ago by the story of “Miss Norma,” who at age 90 left her long-time home to spend a year road-tripping with family.
Her story spoke to me of how it’s almost never too late to do something you’ve always wanted to do, or wished you could do.
In a similar vein, in 2019 and 2020 we’ve had the story of Grandma Joy, who traveled the National Parks with her grandson.
So this year, I hope you’ll make a list of things you still want to do in your life. It could be a special trip, once the pandemic is under control. But even while COVID is around, there might be an opportunity for a reconciliation with a family member, taking up a new hobby, or doing something else you’ve thought you’d love to do “someday.”
Write these down. Talk to family or friends about them.
And then make sure to do at least one.
Best wishes for the coming year!
This post was first published in December 2016 and was updated in December of 2020.