A Geriatrician’s Guide to Healthy Living

William Dale, AM’94, PhD’97, MD’99
Chief, Geriatrics & Palliative Medicine, University of Chicago

There are three major changes coming in health and medicine in the United States, all of which will have a major effect on your health. First, there is the approaching wave of older adults, often called the “silver tsunami.” Like it or not, if you are over 60, you are part of that wave. Second are changes in the financing and regulation of the medical system, represented most obviously through the Affordable Care Act. Third are rapidly advancing medical technologies, including electronic medical records, minimally invasive surgery, and genomic medicine. Each of these has crucial implications for older adults.

Given these coming changes, it is easy to feel overwhelmed about what to do. Don’t worry—there are some basic principles of personal health and medical care to maintain your health, independence, and happiness as you age.

1. Stay active. Older adults become frail primarily through the loss of physical function and the development of cognitive impairment, both of which can lead to loss of independence. They are most easily combated through regular activity, including aerobic exercise such as walking, strength training with weights, and mentally engaging tasks. Avoiding frailty, or vulnerability to illnesses like osteoporosis, is crucial.

2. Maintain relationships. As one gets older, staying connected to others is as important as ever. Family and friends are a primary source of both mental and physical health and information about your health. It has been shown here at the University of Chicago that older adults’ networks affect their blood pressure, which is one of the most important health indicators for older adults.

3. Keep your own health records. Although your doctor and hospitals are developing electronic medical records, they remain imperfect, incomplete, and unlinked to each other. To help your doctor know your health, keep a list of medications you take, including nonprescription medications; records of preventive care, such as cancer-screening tests and immunizations; and previous surgeries and medical procedures. Your records can then be easily reconciled with your physician’s records, allowing both of you to stay on the same page, medically speaking. It also helps you to better understand your health as you take responsibility for your own needs.

4. Find a doctor comfortable with treating older patients. As you age, your body undergoes physiological changes. Medications are processed differently, for example. Your risk for certain conditions goes up—and for others goes down. Doctors with specialized training, called geriatricians, are experts in these changes. While there are too few of these specialized doctors in the world, at UChicago, we have one of the largest groups of geriatricians in the city. Working with such a physician can significantly improve your chances of staying healthy, maintaining your independence, and having the highest possible quality of life.

William Dale is a geriatrician with a doctorate in health policy and extensive experience in oncology. He specializes in caring for older adults with cancer, particularly prostate cancer. His father, who died from lung cancer, inspires his passion. His current research focuses on how cancer therapies interact with changes associated with aging. Dale established and codirects UChicago’s Specialized Oncology Care and Research in the Elderly (SOCARE) clinic.

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