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Wellness Part 4—Men in Their Fifties

L.K. Regan

Editor's note: This article is the fourth in a series on wellness and gay men from Devin Wicks, ACE, AFA, who is coordinating UC Berkeley's pioneering new wellness program. See his Welcome to Wellness for an introduction to wellness.

Welcome to your fities! So far in this series on aging and wellness, I've talked to guys in their twenties, thirties, and forties about a few changes they can make in order to live long and prosper. Now I'd like to talk to guys in their fifties. The message for you: Change is no longer about someday, it's about today. At this point, you're poised to take life to the fullest—and don't let anyone tell you differently, you're in the start of the prime of your life. But you want to make sure that disease and poor health don't deprive you of all you've achieved. Here are some tips on how to stay on top of your wellness as you head into your best years:

Health Checks
Let's be honest. In your fifties, you start to be at increased risk for a number of potentially very dangerous conditions. But the emphasis here is on potentially—if you get regular check-ups for key conditions, and keep an eye on the status of a few physical factors, you can preserve your health for your sixties, seventies, and beyond. It's worth just facing down the future, and talking to your doctor about how best to monitor a few challenges:

  1. Heart disease: Heart disease is the leading killer of Americans, and the average risk for it goes up to 40 percent in your fifties. Gulp! And, with two or more risk factors (smoking, obesity, diabetes, family history) it goes up to 50 percent. Time to eliminate the risk factors, now. No more delaying on smoking cessation or weight loss. You should also look into a cholesterol profile at least once every five years or, for high-risk people, once a year. Your goal: To get your HDLs (or good cholesterol levels) above 60.
  2. Immune function: Your thymus gland, which regulates your T-cells, shrinks as you age. The impact: a declining immune system. Start thinking about infection. That involves simple fixes like washing your hands more often, and more proactive choices like making sure your immunizations are up to date, and getting an annual flu shot.
  3. Skin cancer: All that tanning you did in your youth may come back to haunt you now. Fortunately, keeping tabs on your skin is a simple task. Start watching your moles, especially if you are fair skinned, live in a high-sun area, or have a history of burns. If you see moles turning unusual colors, or changing shape, see a doctor. You should check your moles every month, and have a doctor to check your entire body at least once a year.
  4. Blood pressure: You need to keep an eye on your blood pressure, and you need to do so often. Plan to get it checked at every doctor's exam. And, this is as good a point as any to mention that in your fifties, you really need to see the doctor more often. Rather than an annual physical, plan on a semi-annual, or even tri-annual, physical. Remember, the sooner a problem in caught, the faster it can be solved—and you can spend your fifties enjoying the fruits of family and labor, rather than fighting off illness.
  5. Colorectal or prostate cancer: It's simple: Just bend over. A simple rectal exam is the first step toward discovering treatable issues like colorectal or prostate cancer. It's embarrassing, but necessary.
  6. Eye exams: The eyes are the windows to the soul—and to your health. Doctors can see a surprising amount by looking in your eyes. Not just cataracts or glaucoma, but the effects of disease and conditions like high blood pressure. Every two years, or every year if you have pre-existing vision conditions, get your eyes checked.
I know that list seems long—but here's the great news. Over half of people in their fifties say that they are satisfied with their lives. If you stay on top of these few health checks, you can easily be in that group, enjoying the second half of your life at full throttle. You will literally add years to your life by managing your health up front.

Move More and Think Better
Keeping moving in your fifties is the key to your wellness. This is true on a couple of levels. If you've been working out for a long time, you may be in a rut. Use your fiftieth birthday as a chance to change things up. Workout outside for a week, rather than in the gym. Commit to doing new forms of exercise. For instance, head to a local park and try one of our Bootcamps, or our Fighter Training workout. You want to keep moving and challenge your body to adapt. Repetitive injuries will get harder to handle in your fifties; keeping things changing will help to address that.

But you want to think about your mental fitness as well. Memory loss begins in our thirties—but we first notice it in our fifties. You can combat memory loss through exercises, both physical and mental. Here are a few ideas for keeping your mind elastic along with your body:
  1. Keep moving: Studies show that being involved actively—whether working out hard at a gym or just walking some every day—reduces dementia when we're older, by as much as 70 percent in one study. So find physical outlets. If you're not into working out, at least try walking to the store, or around the neighborhood, every day. This is not just good for the body—it's great for the mind.
  2. Keep learning: Use it or lose it—that's the rule for brain elasticity. To keep your brain's neural pathways open, and to keep yourself engaged with your community, think about taking a class. Your local university extension or community college should offer interesting classes at affordable rates. Some colleges also offer online classes for people too busy to attend class in person. Maybe it's time to try to learn a foreign language, and then take a trip abroad....
  3. Keep playing: Studies consistently show the beneficial effects on brain function of playing mentally challenging games. Try to integrate these into your life: do a Sudoku or a crossword every day, over your morning coffee or at lunch...whenever you've got a few minutes. You'll have fun, and reap the benefits for years down the road.
Next week it's on to your sixties...but with this great foundation, you are going to go sailing on into the next decade, and well beyond!