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What to Expect in Your 70s and Beyond

The good and bad. Plus advice on feeling happy, sexy and pain-free

Staying mentally and physically active can help keep you, well, young. What can you expect of the years ahead?

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 encounter — plus the latest advice on feeling happy, sexy and pain-free.

See also: 10 great cities for older singles.

Save Your Skin

The Good News: Your skin is drier, which can be welcome relief for the third of women who were plagued by oily skin and breakouts throughout their adulthood.

The Not-So-Good News: Wrinkles and lines are more plentiful, but so are the options for keeping skin looking bright. Gentle exfoliation and moisturizing are especially important. Pick skin products with antioxidants and glycolic acid, which promote skin thickening and increase collagen production. And apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 every day. Laser treatments can help with dilated superficial blood vessels (called telangiectasias), which tend to appear without warning on the cheeks, nose, chin and legs. (The laser destroys the blood vessels underneath the skin - with no scarring.) And those extra skin tags? Your doctor can remove them through freezing, snipping or cauterizing.

What's Up With That? Non-articular cartilage, the type that gives ears and noses their shape, continues to grow with age, making these appendages larger. But look on the bright side: Such cartilage growth may have evolved to enable people to track and funnel sounds and smells as they age, suggests James Stankiewicz, M.D., chair of the Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

What's Ahead: As you age, the skin around your jawline tends to sag. If you're bothered by it, ask your doctor about skin-tightening radio-frequency treatments, which can tighten skin without damaging the epidermis.

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Studies show strength training can build muscle, which can take force off the joints.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Bone Up for Good Health

The Good News: You can maintain muscle strength through activity.

The Not-So-Good News: About one in three women ages 75 through 85 has osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease, which greatly increases the risk of fractures of the hip and spine. Studies show strength training can build muscle, which can take force off the joints. Plus, weight-bearing activities stimulate the bones to grow stronger and denser. 

What's Up With That? Although worn joints may benefit from anti-inflammatory drugs and activity, surgery may become necessary as cartilage loss begins to accelerate. Regenerative techniques such as platelet-rich plasma and autologous (self) stem cell injections may also help, according to Nathan Wei, M.D., a rheumatologist in Frederick, Md.

What's Ahead: Joint-replacement surgeries are common; one study showed that patients 75-plus recover just as quickly as those 65 to 74.

Preserve Your Senses

The Good News: Lifestyle plays a major role in helping to maintain your senses as you age. So stay away from loud noises, eat a well-balanced diet (which can help ward off such age-related eye disorders as macular degeneration) and see a doctor immediately if you notice that your senses of smell or taste diminish significantly. (This may indicate a sinus infection or be a reaction to medication.)

The Not-So-Good News: You may have trouble seeing when first entering a very dark or bright area. That's because as you age, your eye muscles slow down, causing your eyes' pupils to react more slowly to changes in light. After age 70, the ability to see fine details diminishes as well, because there are fewer nerve cells to transmit visual signals to the brain. If you're plagued by dry eye, medications like Restasis can help create more tears. Finally, some 68 percent of 70-somethings experience some degree of hearing loss. What to do? Swallow your pride and get tested for hearing aids, which have been associated with less cognitive decline and dementia. Wearing the devices could pay off in the long run, experts say, by helping you stay engaged with others and your environment.

What's Up With That? Have you noticed that blues seem gray and reds appear more intense? Not to worry. It's just changes in the lenses in your eyes, which have started to yellow with age. If it gets too bad, you may need cataract surgery. About half of people ages 65 through 74 have cataracts; the number rises to more than 70 percent among those 75 or older.

What's Ahead: Your senses of smell and taste have likely declined, reducing the ability to enjoy subtle flavors. Taste buds decrease in number and sensitivity, and nerve endings in the nose may not work as well. The fix? Turn up the dial on seasonings. Ethnic cuisines like Indian and Thai contain spices and herbs that amplify the aromas and tastes of foods.

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44 percent of women 68 through 80 report being very satisfied with their sex lives, compared with just 30 percent of women 55 to 68 years old.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Improve Your Sex Life

The Good News: Sex in your 70s and beyond? You bet! A recent survey found that 70-year-old men and women were much more likely to be sexually active, to report being in a happy relationship and to have a positive attitude toward sex than people that age who were polled in the 1970s and 1990s. Some 44 percent of women 68 through 80 report being very satisfied with their sex lives, compared with just 30 percent of women 55 to 68 years old.

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The Not-So-Good News: Sex-related hormones — estrogen and progesterone in women, testosterone in men — decline, and vaginal dryness may become more noticeable. But lubricants are effective, as are prescription creams and tablets.

What's Up With That? Rates of erectile dysfunction (ED) increase with age; by 70, between 40 and 60 percent of men will experience symptoms. Research shows that not smoking and eating a diet rich in antioxidants can help.

What's Ahead: A University of Chicago study finds almost 40 percent of men 75 to 85 are sexually active.

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 in your 70s. Just stay active and cut calories if needed, says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

The Not-So-Good News: In your 70s you may secrete less hydrochloric acid, which decreases the availability of vitamin B12, says Lichtenstein. Ask your doctor if you need a B12 supplement (optimal dose: 2.4 mcg daily).

What's Up With That? As you age, your ability to produce vitamin D in response to sunlight gradually decreases. Your doctor may recommend a vitamin D supplement — after age 70, you need 800 IU of vitamin D every day, as well as 1,200 mg daily of calcium.

What's Ahead: The sensations of hunger and thirst can decrease with age, often leading to dehydration and malnutrition. Plan to eat several small meals throughout the day, and consume at least 6 cups of liquid.

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Your response to vaccines decreases with age, leaving you even more vulnerable to illnesses like flu and pneumonia.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Ramp Up Your Immunity

The Good News: Allergies, which result from an overreactive immune system, are likely a thing of the past, because your immune system isn't as sensitive.

The Not-So-Good News: That less-aggressive immune response means you're more susceptible to getting sick. Chronic inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, makes it even harder for the body to mount an effective immune response. So it's important to shed excess pounds, eat a good diet and exercise.

What's Up With That? Your response to vaccines decreases with age, leaving you even more vulnerable to illnesses like flu and pneumonia. After 65 you're eligible to get a higher-dose flu vaccine. A new study also suggests you can boost the effectiveness of your vaccines by getting at least seven hours of sleep a night.

What's Ahead: Rates of cancer rise with age but then level off around 85, so if you've gotten that far cancer-free, you may reach a very old age.

Keep Your Heart Strong

The Good News: Older hearts pump about the same volume of blood with each beat as younger hearts.

The Not-So-Good News: Your heart's walls are getting thicker and its valves are stiffer. One way to improve your heart health? Keep moving. Research recently showed that women and men age 70-plus who spent as little as a half hour a day on activities like walking and dancing had a 20 to 40 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease than those who reported no activity.

What's Up With That? A skipped beat or a racing heart 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 say if you're experiencing unusual fatigue, weakness when exercising or dizziness.

What's Ahead: Heart disease incidence rises; it's the leading cause of death for people 75 through 84.

Take Fewer Nighttime Trips

The Good News: If you're generally healthy, your urological system likely functions pretty well. And an array of therapies can help when problems crop up.

The Not-So-Good News: Bladder tissue contracts and expands less efficiently as you get older, often leading to overactive bladder, incontinence and infection. About 60 percent of women in their 70s will experience some type of urinary incontinence. Ask your doctor about bladder training, medications and pelvic floor exercises ("Kegels"), which can strengthen the muscles around the bladder. More than half of men in their 70s experience symptoms of an enlarged prostate gland, called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Symptoms include a weak urine flow or difficulty urinating, but medications like tamsulosin and finasteride can help.

What's Up With That? Gotta go during the night? Not to worry; that's normal. "In their 60s, 80 percent of people need to get up at least once a night," says Ryan P. Terlecki, M.D., assistant professor of urology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And 25 to 35 percent of those in their 70s get up at least twice. Try decreasing fluids after 6 p.m. and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon. If you're on diuretics for high blood pressure, speak to your doctor about taking your pill in the morning.

What's Ahead: Urinary tract infections are common as you age. The counterintuitive advice? If you're not experiencing symptoms, sometimes it's better to do nothing. Antibiotics can clear up the infection, but they often disrupt other bacterial balances.

Be Happy

The Good News: We're pretty happy. A recent AARP survey showed that of all the decades surveyed, the 70s tend to be some of the happiest years of your life. 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."

The Not-So-Good News: You might stay away from stressful situations, thereby missing out on new opportunities. Just make sure all of your social interactions stay strong. They may be key to facing future challenges with resilience.

What's Up With That? Does your spouse seem mellower than he or she once did? "The ability to regulate one's emotions improves as you get older," says Bob Knight, Ph.D., professor of gerontology and psychology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology in Los Angeles.

What's Ahead: As long as your health remains good, you can expect to be happy. Studies also suggest that negative emotions like anger and sadness become less frequent with age, perhaps because older adults get better at tuning out negativity.

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As you age, your eye muscles slow down, causing your eyes' pupils to react more slowly to changes in light.
Photo by Craig Cutler

Stay Sharp

The Good News: Research shows that the steep loss of brain function once thought intrinsic to aging is often avoidable. "You can improve your brain health by getting regular mental stimulation, social interaction and physical activity," says Gary J. Kennedy, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral science in the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York. And your gut instincts remain sharp as you age, too. In one study, older adults fared as well as those under 30 on intuitive decisions.

The Not-So-Good News: Part of your brain circuitry starts to burn out with age, but most of us compensate by relying on other parts of our brain, and our past experiences, to make decisions. "That's the 'wisdom' that accrues with older age," says Kennedy.

What's Up With That? Feeling increasingly forgetful? This happens because the transmission of nerve impulses between cells slows down as you age.

What's Ahead: Real cognitive decline becomes more prevalent by your 80s; nearly half of Americans 85 or older have Alzheimer's. Your best prevention plan, as Kennedy advises: intellectual stimulation, time with family and friends, and exercise.

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