Ep. 27- Concerns about aging
What's the first thing you're concerned about when it comes to getting older? For many it's dementia and Alzheimer's. For others it may be heart disease. But what will your quality of life be if you survive into your 80s and 90s? Dr. Chet Zelasko will offer some ideas on aging well on this edition of Straight Talk on Health.
Welcome to Straight Talk on Health, I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Together with WGVU in Grand Rapids Michigan, I examine the world of health and health research. Whether it’s research that makes the news, another miracle diet, or a new food fad, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.
Welcome to the second season of Straight Talk on Health, my podcast for WGVU here in Grand Rapids MI. If you've listened to me in the first season, you know that aging and aging science is a passion of mine. But sometimes I think the focus extends in the wrong direction. Most of the time, the people that I talk to are most concerned with dementia and prevention of Alzheimer's disease. And I certainly understand that. We all want to make sure that we have all of our mental faculties as we get older. I also think that people worry that will they get cancer or will they have cardiovascular disease or will they have type 2 diabetes. All of those things can dramatically impact your life. The thing is, they are genetically influenced but framed by phenotype. All right so what the heck does all those big words mean? It means that we may have genetic tendencies towards heart disease and diabetes but they can be prevented, to some degree, maybe even to a higher degree, by your environment and that's phenotype. The lifestyle that you have, the preventative care that you take with yourself related to diet and exercise, and other things are critical.
But I want you to think ahead. And that's especially important the younger that you are today. Aging begins from the day that you're born and so there are things that you can do throughout your life that can give you an edge. An edge, to not only live longer but have a better quality of life.
I was talking to a client the other day. She's lost over 100 pounds at 76 years of age. She did it nice and slow. How? By counting calories. You know, that thing that many experts recommend that you not do. .But she's recently run into a streak where she slipped and fell and injured her back slightly which has prevented her from doing any type of exercise. And other things have occurred in her life that have slowed down her progress. As we were talking, she was talking about living to 100 years old. And so I told her this: if you intend to live to 100, and you're having all of these issues at 76 years old, what kind of quality of life are you expecting to have by the time you get to 100? Do you want to be able to function and enjoy your life or do you want to be sitting in a nursing home with oatmeal running down your chin? Well if you want a quality of life then you have to do all that you can do now--so get off your good intentions and get moving!
That may seem a little dramatic to you but this is someone that I've worked with for three years. She's done a phenomenal job. But she's spending too much time thinking about the issues that she has instead of working on them. I'm not demonstrating a lack of empathy; I'm as tough on myself as I am on others but there comes a time when you have to stop talking and start doing. She's done a tremendous job over these three years, beating the odds of losing well over 100 pounds and maintaining that weight loss simply by counting calories. As an aside, It was, it is, and it will always be about the calories. But weight loss is not the focus of this podcast today. It is the other things that can have a dramatic impact on QOL if happened to live long enough to get to 80, 90 or 100 years of age.
Let me tell you about two men and how things you never think about when you're young can impact you a great deal when you get older, and in this case, really old. They have a lot in common. The first is my father-in-law done. Don. He died at the ripe old age of 94, six years ago. I was his guy. It's remarkably similar to the relationship that I have with my grandson Riley. I'm his guy as well. When dad had to leave the house here and go to assisted living, that was when he was about 88 years old. It was not what he expected it to be.
Let me give you a little background information to put things in perspective. In World War Two, he was the top turret gunner and flight engineer on B24 liberators. He did 20 sorties over Eastern Europe got credit for 24 because of the danger of some of those flights. When they flew into combat, they did not have the ear protection that they have today. He had a 50 caliber machine gun at the side of his ears. To say that he suffered dramatic hearing loss is an understatement. He could hear someone with hearing aids but not really well enough to carry on conversations with other people in the facility. What he most wanted was to talk to other people in the facility and hash over stories about service, his missionary work in Africa, and anything that happened to be in a conversation. But he couldn't because he couldn't hear very well.
That's not all. He developed macular degeneration. One of the things that his daughter Paula, my wife, and I still joke about him is having a football game on the television with the sound off while reading a book, while listening to another game on the radio. The problem is that by his late 80s, he couldn't see well enough to read any more. Even with the assisted devices that they have available today, he couldn't hear audio books and he couldn't read books. Therefore he was pretty much closed off. It did not make for a very exciting time for his last years on this earth. That's quality of life.
Now let me tell you about my good friend Ralph. Ralph just turned 95 years old and he is still an active member in my toastmasters club in Grand Rapids. Even during COVID, he still managed to be able to log in and participate in our weekly meetings. Ralph also suffers from severe hearing loss as a veteran of the Korean War. Not as extensive as dads but still without hearing aids, it's very difficult for him to participate. He also has macular degeneration. We talked the day before I recorded this podcast and he’s lost enough vision to prevent him from reading. But he still gave a 16 minute speech that he was cutting down from 30 minutes on the fly. I have to tell you he is one heck of a speech giver. He has a tremendous sense of humor which he has not lost.
By now, you're probably getting the idea that this is more than just about dementia. Aging with a vengeance includes taking good care of your eyes and your ears. As it relates to your eyes, that means getting regular checkups and I almost blew that one myself. I finally decided to go out and get some new glasses about 10 years ago now. During the eye exam, the optometrist diagnosed me with glaucoma. I should have known that I was at risk because my mom had glaucoma. Through a trial and error process, we've gotten the glaucoma under control and except for one small patch in my lower right eye, I haven't lost any significant vision as of this point. But if I hadn't had it checked out when I did, who knows how much vision I might have lost. Fortunately I only have a slight cataract that still may take a few years to develop and no signs of macular degeneration. But the only reason that I know that is that I get my eyes checked regularly. So part of growing older means that you do preventive care. Not just for your brain. Not just for your heart. Not just for your pancreas. But for other things that are going to contribute to your quality of life and I can tell you that vision is so important.
That's not all. You have to take care of your ears as well. Sure, you may experience some hearing loss because the older that you get, the more things start to go wrong. Cells get worn out. Organs get worn out. And there's only so much you can do to prevent those things. But one thing that you can do is take care of your hearing by getting it checked on a regular basis, especially if you listen to music loudly in the car or in earbuds or you have a job that requires that you be in loud areas.
My brother-in-law has lost some of his hearing due to the job that he had as a teenager. He had to use a jackhammer inside cement trucks to chip out concrete that had set up. You can only imagine the sound that that would have created in that barrel. So when it comes to hearing, to preserve what you have, you’ve got to make sure that you limit your exposure to loud noises when you're younger. Doesn't mean you don't go to concerts where the music is loud. It just means that you use prudence when you're inside of your normal environment. You may have loved turning up the car radio and belting out the words to your favorite song but if you do that long enough and loud enough, you're going to damage your hearing.
The question then becomes this: prevention means that you make regular appointments starting in your 30s to have your ears and your eyes checked on a regular basis. The second part of that is that if you are prone by genetics to macular degeneration, hearing loss, or glaucoma, that you do what you're supposed to do in terms of lifestyle and medications if warranted.
Is there anything that you can do to restore hearing? No. There are no special diets, there are no special supplements, and to my knowledge, there are no procedures that can be done at this time to improve hearing. The only option are good quality hearing aids. So it would seem prevention is the most important thing that you can do by protecting your ears throughout your life.
What about your eyes? Is there anything that you can do? If you have a family history, whether it's macular degeneration or glaucoma or even dry eye syndrome, having a diet high in vitamin A and beta carotene as well as omega-3 fatty acids is going to benefit you. There is a supplement that has been tested in large clinical trials that can reduce the risk of macular degeneration. My only issue with the supplement is that it uses synthetic vitamin E and I'm not a fan of using a synthetic vitamin E. I don't have the time to go into all the details on this podcast but, at some point I will. But taking a supplement that is high in the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin C, vitamin E, copper and zinc are all part of that formula. The other beneficial nutrient is omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA. One final thing, wear sun glasses when you’re outside.
Aging is inevitable; preparing for the inevitable can have a tremendous impact on your quality of life when you get there. We spend so much time thinking about our brains, our hearts, and avoiding cancer, that we sometimes don't consider what contributes to our quality of life as we get older. Yes, you want all your mental faculties but if you can’t hear and can’t see, how much will that impact the life you will have? Take care of those eyes and those ears because health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day. I'm Dr. Chet Zelasko.