By Jimmy Magahern
In 2018, the story of Emile Ratelband, a 69-year-old Dutch man who went to court for permission to change his legal age to 49 because he felt younger than his chronological age, introduced to the world the concept of “age fluidity” – and put old truisms like “you’re only as old as you feel” and “age ain’t nothing but a number” to an actual legal challenge.
Comparing his request to the legal battles transgender people have fought (in some places, successfully) to allow changing the sex on a birth certificate, Ratelband argued that since he feels younger than his actual age, and because his doctor told him that, healthwise, he has the body of a younger man, he should be able to change his age on paper (and, tellingly, on Tinder – the divorced father of seven admitted he was dating again). Ultimately, Dutch courts rejected his bid, citing the practical reality that “amending his date of birth would cause 20 years of records to vanish.” Twitter commenters also raised dark concerns that claiming “age fluidity” could become a cover for pedophiles.
But Ratelband’s story merely took to its extreme the increased efforts among many of the 70 million Baby Boomers now over 50 to turn back time, or at least redefine what we consider “old.”
In a recent New York Times piece, demographics researcher Sergei Scherbov, co-author of a multiyear study on aging, was asked “When does old begin?” Scherbov’s answer: “Your true age is not just the number of years you have lived,” he said. “An old age threshold should not be fixed but depend on the characteristics of people.”
Scherbov’s research suggests measuring age against a kind of ever-widening, dynamic scale, taking into account steady increases in life expectancy and medical advances, along with the subject’s healthy eating and exercise habits, to arrive at an adjusted “prospective age” based not just on how long a person has lived, but also how much longer they’re expected to live.
The good news, then, is that while we can’t yet legally take 20 years off of our age, we can effectively add those years on the other end, moving the goalpost further down field. To help slow your “prospective age,” experts recommend the following measures.
Annual checkups needed for older adults
We all know that taking advantage of preventive services is an important key to staying healthy, particularly as we age. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 25 percent of adults aged 50 to 64 years keep up to date on services, and less than 50 percent of adults aged 65 years or older get all their recommended annual checkups.
Part of that owes to confusion over what checkups are needed. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a handy online tool at healthfinder.gov where you can plug in your age and gender and receive the same screening recommendations most doctors use from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent panel of national experts in primary care authorized by Congress. Under the Affordable Care Act, most insurers are required to offer these screenings for free if strongly recommended by the USPSTF.
In general, most adults over 50 should be getting the following checkups:
• Blood pressure check
High blood pressure increases your risk for serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke. Doctors recommend everyone get their blood pressure checked at least once per year beginning at age 40.
• Colorectal cancer screening
The USPSTF recommends screening for colorectal cancer using colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy or fecal occult blood testing (stool tests) for adults beginning at age 50 and continuing until age 75. Each type of test has its pros and cons (consult your doctor for the best personal option) and only needs to be done every three to 10 years, depending on the test.
Hepatitis C screening
Everyone born between 1945 and 1965 needs to be screened for the hepatitis C virus, according to the USPSTF. Why are Baby Boomers at greater risk for Hep C? The CDC says this group could have gotten infected from medical equipment or procedures before universal precautions and infection control procedures were adopted.
Lipid disorder screening
Screening lipids for cardiovascular disease should be done once every three to five years, based on your doctor’s recommendation.
Depending on your family history and other risk factors, your doctor may also recommend the following screenings:
Hepatitis B test (if you have chronic liver disease or diabetes or have traveled to countries where hepatitis B is common);
CT scan for lung cancer (for adults ages 55 to 80 with a strong smoking history);
Type 2 diabetes test (if you are overweight or have a family history of diabetes);
HIV and STD testing (everyone ages 15 to 65 needs to get tested for HIV at least once).
Screenings for women:
Mammogram (highly recommended annually for all women ages 50 to 74);
Pap smear and pelvic exam (recommended every three years for women ages 21 to 65, or yearly if at higher risk for cervical or vaginal cancer);
Bone density test (women age 65 or older or those with a family history that puts them at higher risk for osteoporosis should have this test every two years).
Screenings for men:
Prostate exam (annually for all men starting at age 50, to determine if there is any enlargement of the prostate);
Prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, test (men over the age of 50 should discuss the pros and cons of PSA screening with their doctors – some do not recommend it).
Shots needed in 2019
As a general rule, most physicians swear by the following four shots for adults age 50 or older:
• Flu shot
Updated each season to keep up with changing viruses, annual flu vaccines are especially important for people 65 years and older because they are at high risk of developing serious complications from the flu.
• Tetanus booster
The CDC recommends a routine tetanus booster vaccination every 10 years to protect against tetanus and diphtheria. On one of those visits, the booster shot should be replaced with a Tdap shot, which covers tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (or whooping cough).
• Pneumonia shots
Adults 65 or older should get two pneumonia vaccines, given on alternating years: one dose of PCV13 (Prevnar) first, followed by one dose of PPSV23 (Pneumovax).
• Shingles vaccine
Everyone age 50 and older should receive two doses of the shingles vaccine Shingrix, separated by two to six months – even if you’ve had shingles before or have had the older version of the shingles vaccine, Zostavax, since that has been labeled less effective than the new vaccine.
Age-appropriate exercise and nutrition
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) recommends changing your diet as you age. Since metabolism slows down as we get older, adults over 50 should be consuming food with fewer calories, fats and salt, but more of certain nutrients:
Lean protein (lean meats, seafood, eggs, beans);
Fruits and vegetables (foods that are high in fiber – the NCOA says “Think orange, red, green and purple”);
Whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat pasta and some cereals);
Low-fat dairy (milk or an alternative).
As for exercise, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology last August found that people in their 70s who maintain a steady regimen of aerobic exercise can have the same heart, lung and muscle fitness of healthy people at least 30 years younger.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend the following guidelines for adults over age 65:
Moderate aerobic exercises (such as walking, swimming or low impact dancing) for 30 minutes per day at least five days a week, mixed with 20 minutes of more vigorous aerobic exercise (running, cycling) three days a week.
Strength training exercises (such as weight machines, resistance bands or free weights) two to three days each week, after medical clearance. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions of at least eight exercises.
Flexibility and balance exercises (such as Tai chi and yoga) for at least 10 minutes three times a week.
Follow these recommendations for checkups, shots and exercise and nutrition, and you just might be able to shave decades off of your “prospective age” – even if you can’t do the same on your driver’s license.