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What to Expect in Your 50s

Better sex. Fewer allergies. A more positive outlook

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Fifty-one percent of Americans think they actually look younger than their age.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Staying mentally and physically active can help keep you, well, younger — particularly in your 50s, when you may notice the first subtle changes in your metabolism or skin.

What can you expect this decade? Everyone ages differently, and lifestyle plays a major role, but you'll experience both hard-to-notice and impossible-to-miss changes in your physical and mental health.

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Read on for the good, the bad and the what's-up-with-that? transformations you'll soon encounter — plus the latest advice on feeling happy, sexy and pain-free.

See also: 10 great quirky places to retire.

Save Your Skin

The Good News: The likelihood of getting an outbreak of acne on the day of your son's wedding is greatly reduced. That's because your skin is getting drier, making blemishes less common.

The Not-So-Good News: The loss of muscle, bone and fat under the skin — along with changes in collagen and elastin — is making fine lines and wrinkles more dramatic, especially if you've smoked or sunned significantly. One remedy: prescription retinol products like Retin-A or Renova, says Helen M. Torok, M.D., medical director for the Dermatology & Surgery Center at Trillium Creek in Medina, Ohio. These creams repair damaged skin by speeding cell turnover. Pick skin products with antioxidants and glycolic acid, which promote skin thickening and increase collagen production.

What's Up With That? In your 50s you're likely to notice age spots and skin tags. For the former, consider trying a dermatologist-prescribed hydroquinone product — "the gold standard for reducing age spots," Torok says. Skin tags are usually benign, if unsightly. A dermatologist can remove them through freezing, snipping or cauterizing.

What's Ahead: In your 60s you may develop dilated superficial blood vessels (called telangiectasias) on the cheeks, nose, chin and legs, but don't worry: Doctors can zap them with a laser that destroys the blood vessels underneath the skin — with no scarring. Other options to help make skin look younger: radio-frequency-emitting devices that tighten the skin, and plasma skin resurfacing. Also, Botox and injectable fillers like Radiesse, Restylane and Juvéderm can reduce wrinkles.

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More than 150 million Americans wear glasses or contact lenses.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Preserve Your Senses

The Good News: Your senses of taste, smell and touch remain mostly intact.

The Not-So-Good News: You'll probably need reading glasses. The cause? As you age, the lenses in your eyes stiffen, making it harder to focus up close. You may become sensitive to glare, and your night vision may decrease, as those same lenses begin to lose clarity. Plus, dry eye becomes more common, says William B. Trattler, M.D., an ophthalmologist at the Center for Excellence in Eye Care in Miami, Florida. Medications like Restasis can help, as can omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon.

What's Up With That? Floaters, tiny specks of debris in the eye that cast shadows on your retina, can appear in your line of vision. They are typically harmless unless you suddenly see dozens of them.

What's Ahead: Hearing loss becomes more common in your 60s, due to the effects of a noisy environment.

Motivate Your Metabolism

The Good News: While metabolism typically slows up to 5 percent per decade, that doesn't mean you have to gain weight. Just stay active and gradually decrease calories, eating more nutrient-dense foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products and fish, says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. "We have fewer 'free' calories for sweets and soda."

The Not-So-Good News: Your stomach empties more slowly, which can increase the risk of reflux. And the slowing of digested material through the large intestine can trigger constipation, says John I. Hughes, M.D., a gastroenterologist with the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston. The easy fix? Fiber and water. Adding fiber to your diet may also help protect against colon polyps. One in four people in their 50s has colon polyps that may develop into cancer, so you should get a colonoscopy.

What's Up With That? After years of guzzling milk shakes with no problem, you may find yourself suffering a dairy hangover — specifically, stomach bloating and discomfort. That's because many people in their 50s produce less lactase, an enzyme that helps digest milk. Even if you're lactose intolerant, you may be able to eat yogurt, which contains active bacterial cultures (known as probiotics) that can help digest lactose.

What's Ahead: In your 60s and 70s you may secrete less hydrochloric acid, which decreases availability of vitamin B12, says Lichtenstein. Ask your physician whether you should eat more vitamin B12-rich foods or need a supplement.

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41 percent of Americans say they’re “optimistic” about getting older.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Bone Up for Good Health

The Good News: If you've been active all your life, your bones, joints and muscles have a better chance of being in pretty good shape during your 50s.

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The Not-So-Good News: Aging and inactivity can lead to achy joints because of the wearing down of cartilage, the loss of lubricating joint fluid and weaker muscles. Some remedies: maintaining a normal weight and strength training.

What's Up With That? Your joints may sound like snapping twigs, but those creaking and popping noises are usually not a serious problem. They may be ligaments tightening around a moving joint, a tendon snapping over a joint, or nitrogen bubbles "popping" in the fluid inside a joint. But talk to your doctor if these sounds are accompanied by pain, swelling or numbness.

What's Ahead: An estimated one in five women 65 to 74 has osteoporosis. Strength training can help.

Keep Your Heart Strong

The Good News: If you're healthy and active, you will likely get a lot more miles out of your ticker. It's never too late to do your part: Grab your swimsuit, bike or running shoes and get moving.

The Not-So-Good News: Your heart's walls are getting thicker and its valves are stiffer. Also, many people in their 50s will start to develop the first signs of heart disease. Thanks to new treatments and the mitigation of risk factors like high cholesterol, though, the death rate from heart disease declined 27.8 percent from 1997 to 2007.

What's Up With That? Have you noticed a skipped beat or a racing heart? It could be atrial fibrillation, a type of heart arrhythmia that becomes more common with age. Since it can increase the risk of stroke, mention it to your doctor. You should also tell him or her if you're experiencing unusual fatigue, weakness or dizziness when exercising.

What's Ahead: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people 65 or older. Experts suggest that exercise cuts the risk.

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74 percent of men and 70 percent of women say their sex lives are better now than at 40.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Improve Your Sex Life

The Good News: Sex after 50 can be better than it was during the child-raising years: You've got more time and fewer distractions, and you're not exhausted from day-to-day child-care issues.

The Not-So-Good News: Sex-related hormones — estrogen and progesterone in women, testosterone in men — are declining in your 50s, although these decreases are less likely to diminish your sex life than are bad habits like smoking and a sedentary lifestyle.

What's Up With That? Rates of erectile dysfunction (ED) increase with age; among men with the condition, 26 percent first experienced symptoms in their 50s. Research shows that the Mediterranean diet — rich in fish, nuts, vegetables and olive oil — helps, particularly for men at risk of cardiovascular disease. Making lifestyle changes like exercising and not smoking also can help.

What's Ahead: Vaginal dryness becomes more common as estrogen levels decline. But lubricants are effective, as are prescription estrogen creams and tablets.

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Stop and smell the flowers. People with allergies often have less severe symptoms as they age.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Ramp Up Your Immunity

The Good News: Allergies, which result from an overreactive immune system, may become less severe, primarily because your immune system isn't as sensitive, says James Stankiewicz, M.D., chair of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.

The Not-So-Good News: A less aggressive immune response means you're more susceptible to getting sick. Protect yourself by shedding excess pounds, eating well and exercising.

What's Up With That? Your response to vaccines decreases with age, leaving you even more vulnerable to illnesses like flu and pneumonia. You may be able to boost the effectiveness of your vaccines by getting enough sleep: A new study found that those who slept less than seven hours a night produced fewer antibodies after receiving a vaccine.

What's Ahead: At 60 you should get the shingles vaccine; at 65 you'll need a shot against pneumococcal disease.

Take Fewer "Nighttime Trips"

The Good News: If you're generally healthy, your urological system likely works just about as well as it did when you were younger.

The Not-So-Good News: By their 50s, some 15 to 20 percent of people get up at least twice in the night to urinate, says Ryan P. Terlecki, M.D., assistant professor of urology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. Try decreasing fluids after 6 p.m. and avoiding caffeinated beverages and alcohol. If you're on diuretics for high blood pressure, speak to your doctor about taking your pill in the morning. Stress incontinence — urine loss when coughing or sneezing — affects about a third of women in their 50s. It's often chalked up to vaginal deliveries and the decline of estrogen, says Terlecki, but you can reduce incontinence symptoms through training. Ask your doctor about medications and Kegel exercises, which strengthen muscles around your uterus, bladder and rectum.

What's Up With That? More than a third of men over 50 experience moderate to severe symptoms of an enlarged prostate gland, called benign prostatic hyperplasia. Symptoms include difficulty urinating, though medications like tamsulosin and finasteride can help.

What's Ahead: Urge incontinence becomes more frequent in women older than 60. More than half of men in their 70s will have prostate issues. Your best move: Stay hydrated and eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content.

Be Happy

The Good News: We get happier. A recent AARP survey showed that from your early 50s on, happiness rises significantly over time. One explanation for the trend: years of experience. "As you get older, you know that bad times are going to pass," says Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. "You also know that good times will pass, which makes those good times even more precious. There's an emotional savoring that comes with age."

The Not-So-Good News: You might stay away from stressful situations, thereby missing out on new opportunities. "Older people are better at anticipating difficult situations and managing their life so they don't expose themselves to unnecessary stress," says Bob Knight, Ph.D., professor of gerontology and psychology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology in Los Angeles. While that may be good for their emotional health, it may also narrow their social networks, "limiting them to people who are more supportive."

What's Up With That? Are you worried that you're not as worried these days? "The ability to regulate one's emotions improves as you get older," says Knight. That means situations that might once have tied you up in knots no longer bother you as much. No wonder less than 5 percent of those ages 45 to 64 can expect to experience major depression.

What's Ahead: People in their 60s and 70s get progressively happier and more satisfied with their lives, according to AARP's happiness research. While 18 percent of those 61 to 65 rate themselves very happy, a full 24 percent of people 66 to 70 say the same. Studies also suggest that emotions like anger and sadness become less frequent with age, perhaps because older adults get better at tuning out negativity.

Stay Sharp

The Good News: The growth of new brain cells continues well into your 50s and 60s — and the capacity to learn new things stays strong.

The Not-So-Good News: With age comes a delay in accessing memories, but memory loss — once thought intrinsic to aging — is often avoidable, according to new research. Case in point: MRIs show that adults who exercise regularly have a bigger hippocampus (the brain region responsible for memory and learning), which helps keep the mind sharp.

What's Up With That? So you find yourself in the kitchen with no idea why you're there. Relax. In your 50s, mild forgetfulness happens because the transmission of nerve impulses between cells slows down slightly. It's rarely a sign of something serious — unless it happens every day or you never recall what you needed from the kitchen.

What's Ahead: Real cognitive decline becomes more prevalent in your 60s, and especially in your 70s and 80s. Your best prevention plan: regular exercise, intellectual stimulation and an active social life.

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