Regular Checkups

Seniors who enjoy good physical health like to stay out of the doctor’s office … but regular visits with a health-care provider can help those 65 and older in myriad ways.

Tony and Sharon Little, internal medicine physicians with the Saint Francis Warren Clinic in Glenpool, say medical visits provide good opportunities to: screen for issues that might not be symptomatic; assess the risk of future problems; discuss healthy lifestyle choices; and update vaccinations.

Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea could cause damage without a patient realizing it. Type 2 diabetes, easy to ignore in its early stages, affects the heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes and kidneys before significant, noticeable symptoms. The disease increases the risk of other problems, including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, kidney failure and atherosclerosis (a build-up of substances in the arteries).

A person can have undiagnosed, untreated hypertension for years without symptoms, Sharon Little says, and the long-term consequences of high blood pressure can cause heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.

Sleep apnea, left untreated, increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, depression and headaches.

A simple test for cognitive function should also be part of an annual physical, says Lee Jennings, a specialist in geriatric medicine at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine.

“For brain health in older adults, make sure that if you have hearing loss, you get that addressed,” she says. “There’s a pretty clear link now between hearing loss and cognitive impairment. If you are having trouble hearing, don’t ignore that – that’s not normal aging.”

Everything important for heart health is important for brain health, Jennings says, including a healthy diet, weight control, treating high cholesterol and not smoking.

“People with worse cardiovascular health have worse cognitive impairment as they get older,” she says. “If you feel like you are having problems with your memory, absolutely talk to your doctor about it.”

Jennings says a written evaluation, which takes 10-15 minutes, tests different parts of memory and thinking and can give a physician an overall idea of a patient’s cognitive functions.

If there is not a problem, having that reassurance is valuable. However, if there are signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, problems can be addressed quickly. Even though there is no cure for either disease, early detection gives a person time to “making sure your finances are in order,” Jennings says. “You can also talk with your family about long-term care. It’s easier for families if they know what you would have wanted and your care is in line with what your wishes are.”

Social and Emotional Needs

Seniors should also be proactive with their social and emotional health, says Pat O’Connor, a resident of Epworth Villa retirement community in Oklahoma City.

“It starts with you,” she says.  “You have to view things from a positive perspective. If something bad happens, I try to figure out how to right the ship. If I can’t, I try to dismiss it. Interacting with others is also important to emotional health.”

O’Connor does volunteer work, much of which revolves around music. She plays the piano for sing-alongs and is an alto in the Epworth Villa choir.

“Music is everything to me, just about,” she says. “And if you don’t mind my saying so, I’m good at it.”

Some seniors find rewarding work with educational and support groups. Nancie Webb, another Epworth resident, became involved with the Alzheimer’s Association because her late husband had the disease. She took training classes and became a support group facilitator.

“Attitude plays such an important part in being older,” Webb says. “I don’t understand people who move in here and say they’ve worked all their lives and don’t want to do anything. There’s always somebody who needs your help.”

Webb says one of her sons has a property near Bristow where she spends time with her grandsons.

“I love to fish,” she says. “I like to sit on the dock with a fishing pole.”

O’Connor also benefits from family time. 

“Three of my children live [in the area], so I can see them routinely, and that’s a good thing,” she says. “They have offered for me to live with them, and I said, ‘In your dreams.’”

Personal Responsibility

Taking ownership of the costs of medical treatment can be done by carefully reading health-care benefit descriptions, says Josiah Sutton, vice present of marketing and business development for CommunityCare. Owned jointly by Tulsa’s Saint Francis and Ascension St. John health systems, CommunityCare offers Medicare Advantage plans that take into account regional health statistics and feedback from members, he says.

 “Anything that Medicare deems as preventive, all health plans will cover it 100%,” Sutton says. “The best thing for the patient to do is look at their benefit documents, which clearly spell out which lab tests are covered.”

Seniors should also check their polices for coverage of gym memberships, vision and dental care, hearing aids and transportation, Sutton says.

Tony Little, of the Glenpool clinic, says another tip is to get informed on genetic health histories because heart disease, asthma, cancer and diabetes tend to run in families, so sharing that crucial information with a physician could extend life. 

Screenings and tests

Tony and Sharon Little, internal medicine physicians with the Saint Francis Warren Clinic in Glenpool, suggest the following screenings and tests for seniors.

Blood pressure – This evaluation should be done at least once a year. Seniors with diabetes, heart disease and kidney problems may need to be checked more often.

Cholesterol and heart disease – These screenings should be done every five years if one’s cholesterol level is normal. People who have high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, kidney problems or other conditions may need to be checked more often.

Colorectal cancer – Every person from age 50 to 75 should be screened. People 76 or older should consult their doctors about these screenings. Options include an annual fecal occult blood (stool-based) test, an annual fecal immunochemical test, a stool DNA test every three years and a colonoscopy every 10 years. Some may need a colonoscopy more often if they have risk factors for colon cancer, including ulcerative colitis, a family history of colorectal cancer or a history of adenomatous polyps.

Eyes – Get an exam every one to two years, and at least once a year if you have diabetes.

Hearing – Get tested if you have hearing loss.

Lung cancer – The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual screenings until age 80 for adults who have a 30-year smoking history and currently smoke, or those who have quit within the past 15 years.

Diabetes – Seniors 65 and older who are in good health should be screened every three years. If you are overweight and have other risk factors for diabetes, ask your provider if you should be screened more often.

Immunizations – Get an initial pneumococcal vaccine at age 65 and an annual flu shot. Get a tetanus-diphtheria booster every 10 years and the shingles vaccine at age 50 or older.

Breast cancer – Women ages 45 to 75 should have mammograms every one to two years. Experts do not agree on the benefits for women 75 and older.

Osteoporosis – All women over age 64 should have bone density tests.

Pelvis and Pap smears – After age 65, most women who have not been diagnosed with cervical cancer or pre-cancer can stop having Pap smears if they have had three negative tests in the past 10 years.

Prostate cancer – The potential benefits of routine prostate-specific antigen testing have not definitively been shown to outweigh the harms of testing and treatment. Prostate examinations are no longer done routinely on men with no symptoms.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm – All men between 65 and 75 who have smoked should have an ultrasound. Other men should discuss this screening with their providers.

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