How old are you? How old do you feel? There is no greater variety among any people than among old people, according to Doctor Rosanne Leipzig, 72, vice chair for education at the Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. In her book Honest Aging: An Insider’s Guide to the Second Half of Life, she describes how people in their sixth and seventh decades often experience very different states of health. Others, including researchers from the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology have found people of different races age differently from one another. They contend that based on cholesterol, blood pressure, their smoking history, weight and other clinical measurements, Blacks average about three years older than whites with the same birthday in their “biological” (as opposed to date of birth) ages.
Their findings mimic other studies indicating that Black people are exposed to more environmental, behavioral, and mental health factors that promote the speed of the aging process, and persons who age fastest have the highest risk of lower life expectancy.” Differences in biological ages predict increased incidents of cardiovascular and cancer deaths among blacks. They also noted that Blacks suffer more discrimination, less economic security and often live in less safe neighborhoods, where high quality food is more expensive and difficult to source than cheap, unhealthy fast food.
Many of these areas have high concentrations of air pollution and scarce recreational exercise opportunities. All these considerations suggest why a majority of those in the Black population may be aging faster than the white population in the U.S. Even so, Dr. Leipzig wants her readers to be aware of the things that we can do to adapt to our new normal as we age and have an enjoyable, engaged, meaningful life even in spite of our changing, aging bodies. In particular she reminds her readers that “Older adults process information more slowly and work harder to learn new information.”
She advises against multitasking as reaction times grow slower. She acknowledges that over time challenges with words are typical and do not necessarily mean the onset of dementia. Acute mental changes caused by medications and illness can be common, so she urges swift medical attention if there are sudden changes in functioning. At each office visit have your doctor review your medications, including those that you may have taken for years, and explain why each is needed, whether the doses are still appropriate and whether any should be discontinued.
Other worrisome but not dementia-related fluctuations of aging include diminished eyesight and hearing loss. Seniors increasingly need more light to read and recognize outlines or determine the variance of colors than in their youth. Because of alterations of hair cells in the ears, it becomes harder for seniors to hear and understand speech, especially in noisy environments. As we grow older our spines shorten. This causes balance struggles and weakened muscles, and falls are more debilitating since fractures in the elderly are more serious due to the dwindling strength of our bones. Still, she counsels her patients to remain as physically active as possible, especially with regular resistance and balance exercises.