At 73, I’m looking forward to at least another 20 years of enjoying life. Those life expectancy calculators are great for the ego.
I was born at home, delivered by my aunt on a farm in Windham, and grew up in the country, eating lots of food we discovered 50 years later was “bad” for you. By the time I was 5 years old, along with gathering eggs and learning to read, I had many strep throats, whooping cough and finally had my tonsils out at the old Maine General Hospital in Portland.
I grew up before the polio vaccine and the discovery of many inoculations that are common today. In addition to whooping cough, I also had measles and chicken pox. At school we received the vaccine for smallpox.
After high school I went to work full time at the age of 17. For the next 45 years I continued to work, sometimes two jobs, was chronically anemic, had a hysterectomy at age 30, got married and divorced, adopted a son, traveled and lived in different cities and came back to Maine. I settled down as a single parent. I got a new job and for the next almost three decades, other than the dentist, I seldom visited a doctor. I was just plain healthy.
At age 58, I became ill with bronchitis. I was extremely fatigued and could hardly walk across the driveway. A trip to the emergency room resulted in open-heart surgery to replace a mitral valve. Doctors at Maine Medical Center told me that the strep throat incidents of childhood may have actually been rheumatic fever, which is known to destroy valves.
The new heart valve set the medical routine for the rest of my life. A valve replacement requires continual monitoring of blood clotting speed, a blood thinner every day, diet restrictions and maintaining good overall health. Strict attention must be paid to gum infections and as a person ages, more than 75 percent develop gum disease. Gum infection can quickly attack a mechanical heart valve and be disastrous. In 2008, my dentist advised me to have all my teeth pulled and get dentures. I’m still working on this. Without dental insurance (and Medicare doesn’t cover dental work) this process is lengthy – but like so much else in life, what is the choice? I have a lot of patience.
Living with this routine of continual heart monitoring, lab visits and prescription changes has become just another part of life. After 15 years with the new body part, my cardiologist says I’m in good shape and come back next year.
In addition to strep throat, other common-for-my-generation childhood diseases can haunt people in their older years. Chicken pox is rare today, but was common years ago. Anyone who had chicken pox has an 80 percent chance of getting shingles after they reach their elder years. There is a vaccination now for shingles and it’s available at a few local drugstores.
Other episodes I’ve encountered in these “golden years” include removal of a 30-pound non-malignant abdominal tumor. I was coddled and spoiled by the nurses in the Gibson Wing at Maine Med for about a week, until it was determined whether I had cancer. I was skinny when I came back home.
Plastic surgery and a nose rebuilding successfully cleared up two tiny spots of skin cancer.
I’ve also had a cataract removed and will have the other eye done this spring. This is the most common operation in the country – and to anyone who loves reading, it’s a miracle. Totally pain free.
A couple of years ago, when I had routine bloodwork done, within hours I was told to immediately go to the emergency room, as I was extremely anemic and had to have blood transfusions. A colonoscopy uncovered the culprit. Another repair to this old body and I was told to come back in 10 years.
I keep a close eye on what happens to my body and record everything. I don’t patronize fast-food lanes, love to cook and drink gallons of water and daily nutrition drinks. My primary care doctor is excellent in scheduling routine maintenance like mammograms, bone density scans, pneumonia shots every five years, flu shots yearly, and diabetes and cholesterol screenings. If I am lucky, this spring will mean new teeth, new vision and lots of time spent in the sun (with sunblock, of course) getting free Vitamin D.
It may sound as though I’ve done nothing in the last 10 years except visit doctors and hospitals – but after a while it becomes routine. My health issues are mild in comparison to many of my same-aged friends. I am fortunate to feel great most of the time and look forward to many years of laughter, discovery and finishing the book I’ve been working on for four or five years.
For women my age, I think the best medicine is having sisters and brothers who are close and a circle of good friends of all ages. It works for me.
(UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES)
• Physical yearly
• Breast self exam monthly
• Dental exam every six to 12 months; floss daily
• Diabetes Screening every three ?to five years
• Mammogram every one to two years
• Pelvic exam yearly
• Pap test every three years*
• Blood pressure yearly
• Bone density screening
• Thyroid test yearly
• Urinalysis every one to two years
• Glaucoma test every one to two years; vision test every one to two years
• Electrocardiogram every two to three years
• Hearing test every two to three years
• Cholesterol every four to five years
• Colonoscopy every 10 years**
• Chlamydia test if you have new or multiple partners
• HIV or other STD tests, discuss with your healthcare provider
*After 65 if you have had three normal Pap test in a row, no abnormal test results in the last 10 years, and have your health care provider’s approval, you don’t need regular Pap tests. You should still have a pelvic exam every year.
**MD Anderson Cancer Center does not recommend colorectal cancer screening for people age 85 and older. If you are between 76 and 85, check with your doctor.
• Pneumonia shot at 65
• Flu shot every flu season
• Shingles vaccine if you have not had one
• Tetanus booster every 10 years
Good nutrition is important. Eating a low-salt, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and fiber can help reduce age-related risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis and other chronic diseases.
If you are inactive, you have double the risk of becoming more immobile as you age. Exercise has multiple benefits; it can even help keep your mind sharp.
No matter how old you are or how unhealthy you’ve been in the past, you can start taking better care of yourself now and still reap the rewards.
Protect yourself against falls:
• Exercise to improve strength and balance
• Review medications with doctor – some may cause dizziness and confusion
• Evaluate home for potential fall risks – scatter rugs, missing railings
Stay mentally active – learn something new. Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks!
Do something you’ve always dreamed of doing. If you don’t do it now, you may never.
Memory loss with age is not inevitable.
Some causes of memory problems that are not age-related: depression, illness, and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, medications, and stroke.
Ten signs of Alzheimer’s
• Memory loss that disrupts daily life
• Challenges in planning or solving problems
• Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or at leisure
• Confusion with time or place
• Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
• New problems with words in speaking or writing
• Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
• Decreased or poor judgment
• Withdrawal from work or social activities
• Changes in mood and personality