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Finding Your Way: Checklists May Help You Stay Healthy

As we get ready to watch the upcoming Olympic Games, several athletes in their 40s and 50s will be taking part, including a 41-year-old U.S. swimmer and a 53-year-old Israeli marathoner.

These days, many people over age 50 are staying fit, even if they don’t plan to compete at an elite level. But some men and women aren’t sure how they can take care of themselves so they can stay healthy and keep doing the activities they enjoy.

My agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and AARP developed two new checklists that outline the steps men and women over age 50 need to take to stay healthy and prevent disease.

The checklists are based on recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. This is an independent panel of experts in primary care and prevention that reviews medical evidence to determine which tests and medicines have consistently been proven to work.

AHRQ and AARP, the leading consumer group for people over age 50, worked together on this project for a simple but important reason: The U.S. population is getting older. In the next 10 years, 77 million boomers will turn 65. As we get older, what we need to do to stay healthy changes.

For both men and women over 50, the daily steps to good health are ones we’ve probably heard before. The checklists remind us of these steps that have been scientifically proven to work.

Men and women age 50 and older should make sure they:

  • Are tobacco-free. Tobacco use is a leading cause of heart disease and cancer. For tips on how to quit, follow this link for resources that have helped other people kick the habit.
  • Stay physically active. If you are not active now, work up to 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. Walking briskly, swimming, dancing and mowing the lawn are good examples of moderate exercise.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Include generous amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk products in your daily diet. Limit your intake of foods that are high in fat, salt and added sugar.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Keep in mind that the calories (or energy) you consume must be burned off with activity so you don’t gain weight. Check with your doctor if you start to gain or lose weight, as this can be a sign of a medical condition.
  • Drink alcohol moderately, if at all. This means no more than one drink per day for women and two for men. If you are older than age 65, have no more than one drink per day.

The checklists, which are available in English and Spanish, can be taken to medical appointments. In addition to providing daily health steps, the checklists can help you and your doctor talk about which preventive screening tests you need.

Unlike diagnostic tests, which help confirm if you have a disease, screening tests are used to check for problems before symptoms appear. Examples of preventive screening tests that both men and women should get after age 50 include those that check blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Women should get breast and cervical cancer screening tests, and both men and women should be tested for colorectal cancer.

The checklists can help you keep track of the date and results of your last screening tests, when you should have the test next, and questions for your next doctor visit.

Men and women over age 50 should also discuss with their doctor or nurse whether they need to take medicines to stay healthy. For example, taking an aspirin every day can prevent heart disease in some men and stroke in some women.

As you watch athletes in the Olympics compete for gold medals, remember there are steps you can take to stay healthy. The checklists for men and women over 50 can help remind you of the simple steps to follow to stay healthy for years to come.

I’m Dr. Carolyn Clancy and that’s my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

Carolyn Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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