Enjoying the good life of those swinging 60s

Edith Howard-Henry delights in the kind of schedule that can either pump you up or poop you out: Formally retired from a career of teaching high school Spanish and French at Western High School, she helps chase after three young grandchildren, teaches part time at the New Community College of Baltimore, works on a host of volunteer committees, serves as an elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church, cooks gourmet fat-free meals and still finds time to grow prize-winning daffodils.

"I'm constantly on the go, I stay active, both mentally and physically," says Ms. Howard-Henry, 64. "I'm up at 7 in the morning and in bed at 1 or 1:30 -- some time after Ted Koppel."


With smarter eating, regular exercising and attention to medical check-ups, people are finding the seventh decade of life a lot more inviting.

Take William Andersen, 67, who spent a week at Orioles Fantasy Camp in February. After a six-week course of stretching and isometric exercises to prepare for the ball-playing, his only complaints were a bit of soreness and fatigue.


"The fact that people get weaker as they get older has mostly to do with inactivity," says Dr. Andersen, who is chief of the division of maternal and child health for Baltimore County. "If you give elderly people exercises, their muscles will get bigger and stronger just like anyone else's."

"Although people fear aging, there's nothing wrong with it. And we can now do a lot to modify the risks of illness," says Dr. John Burton, chief of geriatric medicine at Francis Scott Key Hospital and clinical director of geriatric medicine and gerontology at Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine.

The biggest threats to the health of people in their 60s, he says, are cardiovascular disease and cancer: illnesses whose likelihoods can decrease with changes in diet and exercise and regular screening.

A recent 9-year study of elderly New Yorkers indicated that cholesterol levels remain an important health consideration for people in their 70s and 80s. The project found a link between certain cholesterol irregularities and the risk of heart attacks in the elderly.

Regular exercise, such as walking or swimming, helps lessen the risk of cardiovascular disease, Dr. Burton says, but emphasizes that exercise is not as important as maintaining a heart healthy diet.

And he underscores the fact that smokers will benefit from quitting at any age.

Because the risk of breast cancer increases with each decade, he recommends women receive a yearly breast exam as well as mammogram.

He also advises people schedule a test to screen for colon cancer at some point during their 60s.


Most doctors also recommend that men over 40 have an annual rectal examination to check for the possibility of prostate disease that could include cancer.

It is also a decade when people should become keenly aware of their medications, both prescription and over the counter, because of the body's changing physiology. Older people metabolize drugs more slowly and excrete them differently because their bodies have more fat and less fluid, Dr. Burton says.

Other health issues?

He advises everyone in their 60s to take time to learn about the health care system and to understand their medical coverage and its limitations, such as long-term care. They should think about their future housing needs. They should make decisions about advance directives, such as a durable power of attorney for health care that gives a proxy the right to speak on behalf of a patient if he or she can no longer communicate.

He also says people should stop worrying they will lose their grip on life simply because they are aging.

"We used to think as you got older that your heart failed, simply because people couldn't separate heart disease from aging. It used to be thatwhen you got old you got dementia. Well, no."


He says there is a gradual, a steady, loss of homeostatic reserve -- the ability to resist external stresses -- that decreases between age 30 and the end of your life. Measurable examples include a person's maximum breathing capacity, the time it takes transmissions to travel down a nerve and the rate with which cells can repair damage.

"But there's still a great deal that elderly can do. There's still so much homeostatic reserve, for instance, that you can start a sport."

Dr. Burton recalls a relative in his 60s who decided not to try scuba diving because his doctor told him he was too old.

"Of course you can start scuba in your 60s. You may do it more slowly, it may take you longer to recover from it, but you can do it. . . . It's never too late. Retiring at 65 is an entirely superimposed sociological phenomenon."There's no physical reason for it."