Your 50 Top Health Questions Answered
AARP answers your top medical concerns from our Exclusive Survey on Health and Aging
Anxiety is practically a way of life these days. But who’d have thought that people in their 50s are the most anxious when it comes to their health? In fact, that’s what emerged when AARP surveyed 900 older Americans this past winter. That’s pretty remarkable: We’re in year three of a pandemic that’s been particularly brutal for those who are 70 or older, yet it’s people 50 to 60 who are the most freaked out about their well-being.
“I would call this anticipatory anxiety,” says Manfred Diehl, a professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University. “That is when people become increasingly aware they are aging.” And indeed, there’s nothing like encountering your face on a video call and seeing your grandparent. But being anxious about your health just isn’t good for your health. So, we found some real solutions to the real issues gnawing at 50-something minds, based on what you told us in our survey. It’s time for some answers.…
Self-Care, Eating Well, Living Well
1. Well I’m in my 50s, but honestly, I feel like I’m still young. At what age should I get serious about my health?
Right now would be a good start. Longevity researchers study a phenomenon known as future time perspective. The more time we perceive we have, the more we’re able to ignore the fact that we’re overweight, may have elevated inflammation levels and don’t know what our basic health numbers look like. If you haven’t had a checkup in the past year, start there. Get your blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol numbers checked, and make sure that keeping them under control is a top priority.
2. Wait — I heard doctors don’t worry so much about high cholesterol anymore. Is that true?
No. High cholesterol, particularly LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, is still a marker for a higher risk for heart disease. And preliminary results from a 2022 study of more than 750 older adults found a link between high cholesterol levels and elevated dementia risk. So, stick to those statins, if that’s what your physician suggests.
3. Does all this ‘healthy living’ stuff really help me live longer? My uncle ate bacon every morning and lived to age 87.
It’s not just about how long you live; it’s about how well you live. A 2019 BMJ (British Medical Journal ) study that had followed more than 110,000 people since the 1980s found that those who adopted healthy lifestyle habits such as controlling their weight, exercising and not smoking lived disease-free for far longer after age 50 (30-plus years) than people who didn’t adopt those habits (23 years). Science still hasn’t explained Keith Richards, however.
4. What’s the best diet? Is it keto? Paleo? G-free? Do I need to live on acai and buttered coffee?
Healthy-food rule number one: no fad diets, no weird plans, just common sense. A recent analysis of 1,995 people showed that those who ate greater amounts of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains and low-fat dairy — and lesser amounts of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium — slowed their aging at a cellular level. “Foods like sugar and highly processed flour can trigger inflammation in your body and are usually calorie dense as well,” explains registered dietitian Maryann Walsh, a certified diabetes educator and the founder of Walsh Nutrition Consulting.
5. I’ve heard that keeping calories down is linked to longevity. Does that mean I should be fasting?
Multiple studies have shown that long-term calorie restriction can reduce metabolic function and slow the cellular aging process — in rats! Human trials have been limited. A 2019 study in The Lancet showed that people who reduced their calorie intake by 12 percent had lower blood pressure and cholesterol, increased insulin sensitivity and lower inflammation. The problem? The study covered only 238 people over two years, and the oldest among them were 50. Plus, calorie-restriction diets can cause muscle loss, which in turn can result in rebound weight gain and other unhealthy outcomes.
Women feel worse about their health than men do. Across all age groups, 70 percent of men rated their mental health as very good or excellent, compared with 54 percent of women. Females worry more about joint pain and sleeping problems, too.
Your best bet: Don’t fast, and don’t go on crash diets; just try to eliminate the junk calories you eat and turn to more healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables. A good starting point is to reduce snacking out of boredom, anxiety or habit. Instead, stretch or walk.
6. I know what I’m supposed to eat, but how can I keep eating what I enjoy?
In most cases, you can eat anything you want, Walsh observes. You just can’t eat as much as you want. And you have to include the fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains and fish you need to lower inflammation and keep your calories in check.
7. Skipping breakfast is the new diet trend. Good for me?
Bad for you. Breakfast is important for a number of reasons, and one of the big ones is fiber intake. A 2021 Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine study found that breakfast eaters who ate more than 25 grams of fiber a day had a 21 percent lower risk of all-causes death than breakfast skippers did. And a meta-analysis of studies showed that for every day of the week you skip breakfast, your risk of diabetes grows.
8. Do I need all these prescription meds?
One in 5 adults age 40-plus take at least five Rxs. The risk comes when you have multiple docs all writing prescriptions with no reliable communication between them, says Amie Taggart Blaszczyk, division head of geriatrics at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Pharmacy. Keep a written list of every prescription and over-the-counter drug and supplment you're taking, how often and the dose. Cross-check this list with each of your doctors.
9. How can I eat a healthy diet when I’m on a budget?
“Hit the freezer section,” Walsh says. Frozen fish and vegetables are generally less expensive than fresh, come in convenient serving sizes (no more tossing half-full containers of spoiled spinach) and keep for weeks.
10. I have, like, a billion different vitamins in my cabinet. Isn’t that enough?
Nope. Studies show over and over again that pills don’t work the way foods do. Example: A 2019 study of more than 30,000 adults found that healthy levels of vitamins A and K and the minerals magnesium and zinc may be associated with a lower risk of death — but only from food, not pills. We don’t fully understand why, though it may have something to do with the way the nutrients in food interact with one another.
11. You mean vitamin pills are useless?
For someone in their 50s? There’s skepticism, with this exception: vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency in older adults has been estimated at anywhere from 20 to 100 percent. Sunlight and food clearly aren’t enough to get many people to the 600-IU-per-day recommended minimum, so ask your doctor if D3 supplements may be a good idea for you.
12. What about my fish oil pills? I read they may not prevent heart attacks, after all. True?
It’s not clear. A 2020 JAMA study of more than 13,000 people with high heart disease risk (average age: 63) compared groups taking a common omega-3 formulation or a placebo and found no benefits to the fish oil. Other research, however — including a 2019 analysis of more than 127,000 people— showed that taking omega-3 supplements derived from fish oil reduced the risk of heart attacks and death from heart disease. Bottom line: Eat more fish and omega-3-rich foods such as nuts and seeds, and talk with your physician about an omega-3 supplement.
13. Is there a secret to making sure I get great medical care?
Find great doctors you like and stick with them for life. Continuity of care is linked to fewer ER visits, better adherence to medication and longer life.
Fitness: Maintaining Power
14. OK — more healthy foods, a good doctor and watch the pills. What’s another lifestyle change I can make today that will help the most?
Go for a walk. Being sedentary, with low overall fitness, raises your mortality risk as much as, or more than, smoking, high blood pressure and heart disease. An analysis of studies on people ages 54 to 65 found that binge-watching TV for four-plus hours a day may make you 35 percent more likely to develop blood clots in the thigh and lower leg.
15. Is that all I need for exercise — a long walk?
Yes and no. Research has shown that moderate activity such as walking has excellent health benefits, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. Just over 20 minutes of brisk walking each day gets you there. “Doing the same activity every day over time has benefits, but changing it up could have more benefits,” notes Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine specialist at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery. “Doing a variety of activities, particularly as you get older, will challenge your body, lead to greater fitness and health benefits and help you avoid injuries.” He recommends swapping in weight training, swimming or biking, and yoga.
16. I hate gyms, loud music and sweaty people. What else can I do to preserve mobility?
Play tennis or pickleball. “Mobility is all about the lower body, and your entire lower body is interconnected,” Metzl says. Unlike, say, running or biking, tennis moves you in every direction, challenging your hips, glutes and legs from a variety of angles. Basketball is another option. Plus, first thing in the morning, do some multidirectional lunges (forward, side to side, and backward).
17. Hmm, still a little sweaty. What’s a 100 percent sweat-free way to improve my health?
Floss your teeth every day. According to the 2019 Global Burden of Disease survey, untreated oral diseases caused people ages 50 to 74 worldwide to suffer a collective 8 million years of life “with disability” in 2019.
18. What’s a worthwhile fitness goal for people in their 50s?
If you dream of running a marathon, that’s great. But there’s a simpler goal within such big goals as well, Metzl says: “Just start exercising, and don’t stop. Build a foundation, and keep building with the next 30 years in mind. Then you can set more specific goals.”
19. I’ve been exercising but haven’t lost any weight. It feels pointless.
Weight loss comes primarily from eating healthier food and fewer junk calories. What exercise does is dramatically lower your risk of age-related health issues, from bone loss to heart disease to back pain, Metzl explains.
Top Lifestyle Concerns Among People 50 to 59
- Back pain: 33%
- Weight gain: 33%
- Lack of energy: 32%
- Memory loss: 30%
- Arthritis: 30%
Source: AARP/Interloq Survey
20. My joints ache after exercise. Is arthritis setting in?
Exercise soreness goes away after a day or two. With osteoarthritis, you’ll most likely be dealing with joint pain, swelling and limitations on motion, Metzl says. “Because we’re talking pain, people often think, I have arthritis — I need to baby it. The opposite is true.” Building up muscles around your joints will improve any arthritis symptoms you currently have and prevent more of them in the future.
21. Are fitness watches worth the expense?
A military study involving 1,500-plus soldiers is underway to test a theory that smartwatches can help soldiers manage stress and train more effectively. While definitive results aren’t in, if something can motivate and protect you, it might be worth a look.
22. I’ve had back pain for years. Do I have to learn to live with it?
No, just the opposite: You need to learn to live without it. Recent trials have shown that when some people suffer chronic pain for a long time, their brains can still generate pain signals, even though the problem has healed. A new treatment — pain reprocessing therapy — teaches the brain to stop sending those signals. In a 2021 clinical trial, two-thirds of those who used the therapy for four weeks were pain-free or nearly so, and brain scans showed reduced activity in pain processing.
23. What else can I do for my bad back?
Plank exercises, Metzl advises. Lie facedown on a mat. Bend your elbows, and bring your hands together under your chin. Now lift your knees, hips and torso off the floor, so your weight is on your elbows and toes. Keep your back straight, and don’t let your belly or hips sag. Hold this position for as long as you can. Repeat twice.
Aging: Keeping Up Appearances
24. What’s a ‘healthy’ sex drive for someone in their 50s?
If your current sex drive makes you happy, it’s healthy, notes gynecologic oncologist Elizabeth Poynor, M.D. If it’s low and that’s upsetting to you, it’s time to look for the root cause of your sluggish libido and address it. “Not everybody has to have lots of sex to be healthy and happy,” Poynor adds. “It’s highly individualized.”
25. I’m just not enjoying growing older. What’s wrong with me?
“How old do you feel?” asks Diehl. Research shows that feeling younger is associated with better mental and physical health, cognitive function and satisfaction with life. A study that followed nearly 3,600 people for 10 years found that those who started out with a higher subjective age and depression ended up with more physical health issues later on. If you’re depressed and “feel” older most days, seek help.
26. What can I do about the stress in my life?
Aggressively rethink how you react to daily dramas. A 2020 study showed that people experiencing “unbearable” stress lost nearly three years from their life expectancy. Always remember that stress isn’t a demanding boss, a struggling child or lousy daily news headlines; it’s your reaction to them. You have two choices: Remove the stressor, or learn how to react to it in a healthier way.
27. I try to ‘stay young’ in how I live and think. Am I being ridiculous?
Nope, you’re just taking advantage of the way we’re redefining aging. People in their 50s to 70s today “were the first cohorts that grew up with better education, better health care, and developed different lifestyles,” Diehl says. That has translated into older people looking and behaving much younger than people their age in previous generations. Embrace it!
Survey respondents aren’t clamoring for Botox and hair weaves. Only 18 percent said they were very or extremely concerned about thinning hair. The next highest appearance concerns were hair loss (17 percent) and wrinkles (15 percent), though those worries were higher among women.
28. I’m thinking about doing some surgical ‘freshening up,’ but is cosmetic surgery safe?
The fact is, we’re surrounded by people who’ve had cosmetic surgery: There were 2.3 million procedures in 2020, and surveys show that about 90 percent of patients are satisfied with their results. And, in general, cosmetic surgery is safe. A study of more than 26,000 cosmetic procedures found that only about 1 percent of patients experienced complications in the 48 hours that followed surgery.
29. My husband refuses to talk about his health or go to the doctor. Is he hiding something?
Half of men admit that they don’t talk about their health, a Cleveland Clinic survey showed. “Not knowing there’s a problem may be preferable to the discomfort of learning there is one,” says Harvard clinical health psychologist Natalie Christine Dattilo. Forget guilt-tripping and nagging; you’ll only cause resentment. Try to give off calm, supportive and loving vibes. Be a good role model and take care of yourself in the meantime.
30. How do I shake this chronic exhaustion I’ve picked up during the pandemic?
Eat nourishing foods. Drink lots of water. Change out of your pajamas. (Yes, every day.) And exercise — moving your body on a daily basis builds the physical and emotional resilience you need to make it through yet another variant. These are all what we might call “the self-care basics,” notes Barbara Hannah Grufferman, author of AARP’s Love Your Age.
31. I had COVID last winter, and I still feel off. Is this long COVID?
Data suggests that more than half of COVID survivors wind up with post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. It’s marked by extended breathing problems, brain fog, headaches and joint pain. Studies show that the virus may persist in the heart, brain and spinal fluid for months after the initial infection has run its course. If you have persistent post-COVID health problems, see your doctor.
32. I don’t feel as sharp at work as I used to. What can I do?
Consider different ways to reinvigorate your career. That might mean moving to a new division, pursuing a promotion or pivoting to another field entirely. Updating your skill set can also organically boost energy levels at work. Become active on social media channels that are relevant to your career, take a class, or freshen up your LinkedIn profile or create one if you haven’t yet done so.
33. How do I prevent myself from becoming a caregiving nightmare to my kids?
Start a conversation now. “Tell them, ‘My passwords are located here; here’s my financial situation; these are the medicines I’m on,’ ” explains certified care manager Amy Cameron O’Rourke, author of The Fragile Years. Make these issues part of an annual family meeting, because what you want at age 55 in terms of, say, end-of-life wishes may be different once you’re 75.
34. A loved one and I are estranged because our values just don’t align. How do I reconnect?
Some 27 percent of American adults are estranged from a family member, according to a survey by Cornell University sociologist Karl Pillemer. Whether your rift was caused by politics, unresolved childhood baggage or something else, move toward healing by reaching out and saying, “My relationship with you is more important than the topic we are disagreeing on,” O’Rourke suggests. Mending your family feud will do more than resuscitate your relationship; it may make you healthier.
Health: Resisting Disease
35. I have hypertension. Are blood pressure cuffs worth the money?
Yes. A 2021 study, over 10 years, of 11,502 people ages 45 to 60 showed that those with the lowest cumulative systolic BP readings lived 4.1 years longer and delayed heart disease by 5.4 years. Measuring your blood pressure frequently reminds you to do the things needed to keep it in a healthy range.
36. What’s the first sign of heart disease?
It’s plural: unusual fatigue, sleep problems, shortness of breath, indigestion and chest pain, says Suzanne Steinbaum, an osteopathic preventive cardiologist. Take special note if the latter three happen when you’re active and go away when you’re at rest.
37. I love my nightly glass of wine. A little bit of vino is good for my heart, right?
Maybe not. Several organizations, such as the Mayo Clinic, still endorse that idea. But the American Heart Association doesn’t recommend drinking any form of alcohol to gain health benefits. Research is beginning to coalesce around the idea that light or moderate drinking may not help to prevent heart disease — so much so that the World Heart Federation declared in 2022 that “no level of alcohol is safe” for your heart health.
38. How about marijuana? Is it safe?
Not as safe as it used to be. A meta-analysis of studies found that pot potency — its THC level, specifically — rose 24 percent from 1975 to 2017. A JAMA review of studies of more than 1,400 people 50 and older found that higher doses of THC were associated with a higher incidence of thinking and perception issues (not the good kind), as well as dizziness.
39. I have the occasional cigarette. Does that really matter?
Yes. A review of 141 studies showed that people who smoke just one cigarette a day still have half the heart disease risk of people who smoke 20.
Most-Feared Diseases Among People 50 to 59
- Stroke: 29%
- Heart Disease: 29%
- Cancer: 27%
- Alzheimer's: 27%
- Diabetes: 25%
Source: AARP/Interloq Survey
40. Does ‘prediabetes’ mean you’re definitely going to get diabetes?
There are no guarantees, but there’s a lot of evidence that making lifestyle changes now can dramatically reverse the direction your health is headed in. For example, preliminary results of a 2022 study of more than 8,700 people showed a strong relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and new-onset type 2 diabetes: The higher the fitness level, the lower the type 2 incidence.
41. What’s a simple, tech-free way to measure my health?
Waist-to-height ratio. Strive for a waist circumference that’s less than half your height.
42. How much should I worry about cancer in my 50s?
The median age for a cancer diagnosis is 66, meaning half of all cases occur in those who are younger. These are especially important years to pay attention to cervical cancer (median age at diagnosis: 50) and breast cancer (median age at diagnosis: 63). The good news is that cancer mortality rates have fallen about 32 percent since 1992, with an overall five-year survival rate of 68 percent.
43. So, if cancer runs in my family, I should get screened regularly?
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for several types of cancer, including breast, cervical, colorectal and lung. There is evidence showing that screening tests can catch these cancers early and make a difference in treatment and survival.
44. What about prostate cancer? Should I get a PSA test?
Yes. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men besides skin cancer, and 40 percent of cases hit men before age 65. Nearly 99 percent of prostate cases, however, are treatable if they are caught early. And don’t panic if your PSA is elevated. Most men who have an elevated PSA don’t have cancer, and only 25 percent of prostate biopsies find cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health.
45. My mother was legally blind when she died. How do I protect my eyes?
Pop in to see the eye doctor for a dilated-eye exam every year, says Kenneth Dickerson, a doctor of optometry at the University of Rochester’s Flaum Eye Institute. Most eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, are silent sight stealers; without a doctor’s inspection, you don’t know you have a condition until it’s at an advanced stage.
46. Speaking of senses, what can I do about my damn tinnitus?
There are no sanctioned treatments. Still, ask your doctor about neuromodulation, in which a device simultaneously delivers electric stimulation to the tongue and auditory signals to both ears. A 2020 study found that this type of therapy reduced tinnitus symptoms over a 12-week period.
Brain Power: Remaining Sharp
47. What’s the number one thing I can do to help prevent dementia?
Be in bed by 10 p.m. “The earlier you get to sleep, the more slow-wave sleep you’ll get,” says Sara Mednick, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Power of the Downstate. Slow-wave sleep (SWS) supercharges brain health, clearing away toxins and other buildup that cause dementia, as well as developing connections between areas of the brain to create stronger memories.
But SWS also abides by nature’s circadian clock and peters out at around 1 a.m., so you need to hit the sack early to maximize your time there. In short, you can’t close your eyes at midnight and still expect to net three hours of memory-protective SWS.
A majority of respondents ages 50 to 79 said they’re afraid of losing their mental or physical faculties, becoming a burden to their families and having to give up their independence. As one participant wrote of Alzheimer’s disease, “It terrifies me to think of losing myself.”
48. Yikes! I’ll try to go to bed earlier, but I notice I sleep less now that I’m in my 50s. Is that normal?
Yes, it’s totally normal. In your 20s you needed about eight to nine hours of sleep every night. More mature you needs about an hour less, notes Nalaka Gooneratne, M.D., a sleep medicine physician and geriatrician at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. You know you’re clocking enough if you’re alert during the day; sleepiness or brain fog signals a possible medical issue, such as sleep apnea, that you’ll want to get checked out.
49. About that nightly wine: It’s still good for my brain, right?
No. No, it’s not. A study of more than 25,000 people in the U.K. showed that any alcohol consumption at all had negative effects on brain volume and structure — and that those who binge drink or who are overweight with high blood pressure are more susceptible. The study’s key takeaway: “No safe dose of alcohol for the brain was found.”
50. What else can I do to protect my brain?
There’s no miracle pill for brain health, though one of the most important things you can do is keep your weight stable. A 2021 meta-analysis of data found that being significantly overweight increased the risk of dementia. Surprisingly, however, being underweight was also a risk factor. (Turns out you can be too thin, if not too rich.) Plus, getting exercise is important to cutting your risk.
The full, exclusive AARP/Interloq survey of people age 50 to 79 is available here.
Mike Zimmerman is a frequent contributor to AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin and the author of more than a dozen books on health, nutrition and fitness, including The 14-Day Anti-Inflammatory Diet.