As you age, there are various concerns you should pay more attention to in the stages of your life. With so many changes and advancements in medicine, turning 50 is still considered relatively young. Whether you are presently in your 50s or approaching that age range, getting a full scope of what to expect is your responsibility as an advocate for your own health. To help you discuss with your doctor, below is a breakdown of the most common concerns when it comes to health in your 50s.
What is my cancer risk?
According to a recent study, your midlife health establishes the foundation for your later years. The study also reveals that midlife is when some well-recognized risk factors for cancer and other diseases begin to show their impacts. Years of tobacco use, lack of physical exercise, poor nutrition, and other unhealthy lifestyle choices play their parts in what you may start to see in this stage of your life.
“Among the most common cancer risks for men are lung cancer (with 90 percent of lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking), prostate cancer, bladder cancer, melanoma, and colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer,” says Christopher Hollingsworth, M.D., general and endovascular surgeon at NYC Surgical Associates. Talk to your doctor about how your family history and lifestyle impact your risk for developing the following cancers.
Many colorectal cancers begin as growths called polyps inside the colon or rectum. The American Cancer Society recommends starting regular screening at age 45, but anyone with a strong family history of colon cancer or polyps should get screened earlier. The increased risk of colorectal cancer is significant as the body ages. An alarming 91 percent of cases are diagnosed in individuals aged 50 or older. Earlier screening is always ideal and vital for those with risk factors, such as a history of inflammatory bowel disease.
As men approach age 50, they are more likely to develop a melanoma. “Men pay less attention to their skin and take fewer sun precautions,” Dr. Hollingsworth explains. As a result, men develop more skin cancers, and according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the majority of people who get a melanoma are white men older than 50.
“Men over 50 are at a 50 percent increased risk of prostate cancer, according to the American Cancer Society,” Dr. Hollingsworth says. “Men with an average risk should begin speaking with their doctors about testing starting at age 50, while those with a higher risk, such as African-American men or those with a family history, should consider testing earlier.” Although testicular cancer occurs more commonly in younger men, the elevated risk of developing it continues to hold through age 54.
How is my bone health?
Changes in bone health largely affect women, but men should take precautions as well. As menopause approaches for women, the ovaries produce less estrogen, causing a breakdown of bone cells. “After 50, women lose 0.5 percent of bone density per year. Within the first decade after menopause, women lose about half of the spongy tissue that fills the long bones and about 30 percent of the denser tissue that covers the bones,” explains Luiza Petre, M.D., board-certified cardiologist and weight-loss specialist.
It’s never too late to work on your bone health—ideally, you want to build strong bones in your 20s and 30s. You can achieve this by focusing on your diet with fresh, nutritious foods, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising regularly. Dr. Petre says, “Here are the recommendations to maintain good bone health and decrease the rate of decline.”
- Exercise consistently, focusing on weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening activities.
- Increase calcium through dairy products, but don’t leave out sardines, salmon, and green leafy vegetables such as kale, turnip greens, and collard greens.
- Increase vitamin D intake to help with calcium absorption.
- Cut back on caffeine and alcohol.
- Minimize salt use, as it causes you to lose calcium and increases bone loss.
Dr. Hollingsworth highlights that osteoporosis and decreased bone mass are indeed concerns for men as well. What most may not realize is that after age 30, the body begins to form new bone at a much slower rate, so it’s important to strengthen existing bones. Though men in their 50s do not experience the decrease of bone mass at the same rate as women, they do catch up by about age 65.
How does aging impact my sex life?
For both men and women, the libido changes around age 50. For men, intercourse can be different for a number of reasons, as they may begin to experience erectile dysfunction or health complications such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, which all can impair erections. Premature ejaculation also becomes an issue and is usually linked to anxious thoughts associated with sexual performance.
When females reach this age, there is a drop in estrogen. “Sometimes the vagina itself has changed, and this alone will lead to many changes in her sexuality and libido,” says Janelle Luk, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist and co-founder of Generation Next Fertility. The vagina naturally becomes less lubricated, which can cause pain during sexual intercourse, so some women may want or need to use lubricant.
Another change women should take into account is the pH value within the vagina. This often shifts and can lead to vaginitis, which is the change of the normal balance of vaginal bacteria. It can lead to an infection or reduced estrogen levels after menopause. Signs of vaginitis include an unusual vaginal discharge, itching or irritation, painful urination, and pain during intercourse. “In addition, the female DHEA/testosterone level decreases, resulting in a lower libido,” Dr. Luk says. She adds that when women reach menopause, their testosterone level is half of what they had in their 20s.
How can I boost my metabolism?
As you get closer to 50, your metabolism will begin to slow down. “No matter what your metabolism is like in your 20s, you have probably been told that it’s all just downhill once you hit 30, and it continues to decline by 2 to 4 percent per year,” Dr. Petre says. With aging, hormonal changes take place in the body and affect the way you store or lose fat. Thus, your metabolic rate decreases.
What are these shifts? Dr. Luiza gives an example: “The decrease in estrogen around menopause can make a significant impact. We also lose muscle mass as we age, an average of 3 to 5 percent every 10 years after the age of 35.” As a result, the body burns fewer calories. It enters the aging stage as it leaves the growing stage, so it doesn’t need as much energy anymore.
Naturally, this can lead to a potential weight gain of several pounds each year. As you age, muscle mass decreases, and because muscle burns more calories than fat, this causes metabolism to slow down even more.
Ways to Boost Metabolism
During your 50s, focus on boosting metabolism and supporting thyroid function, which directly affects your metabolic rate. Dr. Petre suggests the following lifestyle tips to optimize your metabolism.
- Opt for metabolism-boosting foods like green tea and spices such as black pepper, cayenne pepper, chili powder, and ginger.
- Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, can help with metabolic support. Try hempseed or flaxseed oil or even hot peppers if you’re not a seafood fan.
- Foods that help the thyroid function more efficiently include eggs, saltwater fish, and shellfish. Selenium-rich foods such as mushrooms, mixed nuts, yogurt, and couscous can be beneficial as well.
- Zinc, an essential mineral that supports thyroid function, is found in chicken, spinach, cashews, and dark chocolate. Good sources of magnesium (an electrolyte that supports thyroid hormone conversion) are spinach, avocado, shrimp, and broccoli.
Am I at risk for diabetes?
In addition to a slower metabolism, aging adults may experience increased insulin resistance and impaired pancreatic function. All this can put you at a higher risk of developing diabetes. Abby Sauer, registered dietitian, says, “By age 45, the likelihood of developing the condition increases drastically. For this reason, the American Diabetes Association recommends annual diabetes screening tests after the age of 45.”
If you have diabetes or are pre-diabetic, managing your blood sugar is key, as keeping levels in check can prevent or slow some complications. This doesn’t mean you can’t continue to enjoy your favorite foods. However, recent research shows that people with diabetes can make some simple changes to improve their diet. “New National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data from Abbott and The Ohio State University shows people with diabetes are consuming the least calories from breakfast, while snacks are becoming a fourth meal,” Sauer says. “And those who are skipping breakfast end up eating more carbs and sugars at snacks later in the day. Making better snack choices could have a significant impact on people with diabetes.”
How should I manage my weight?
For many years, the way to assess your weight is by calculating your body mass index (BMI). This is no longer an accurate measurement, mainly because BMI doesn’t distinguish between muscle mass and fat mass. “Although we know the health risks associated with obesity, it is possible that an obese person with sufficient muscle mass could have better long-term health than a non-obese person with low muscle mass,” Sauer says.
A recent study showed that higher muscle mass was associated with a lower risk of death, regardless of BMI. Extensive research says that health-care professionals should be looking at muscle mass, especially with adult patients in their 50s. Many adults may start to lose up to 8 percent of muscle mass per decade once they reach their 40s. This natural loss of muscle increases the risk of sarcopenia (reduction of muscle tissue as a natural part of the aging process), which can affect your ability to perform regular daily activities such as walking, rising out of a chair, lifting objects, or walking up stairs.
“A recent review, published in Annals of Medicine and supported by Abbott, further shows muscle mass should be a key factor in evaluating a person’s health status, especially if living with a chronic disease,” Sauer says. “It found low muscle mass is linked to an increased risk of serious health complications and decreased survival across inpatient, outpatient, and long-term care settings.”
How can I keep my brain healthy and memory strong?
Sugar intake and high blood pressure are just a couple of the factors that can contribute to an impaired memory. Research from the British Medical Journal shows that from your mid-40s to late 50s, reasoning skills decline 3.6 percent. Verbal fluency and sharpness in memory also decline. However, the ability to regulate emotions, make moral decisions, and read social situations actually improves with age. The ability to solve problems with learned knowledge and experience peaks in your 50s, and while in decline, your memory center is still running at 95 percent. This is credited to experience and humans’ tendency to focus on positive images of their lives rather than the negative. Keep your brain engaged and slow its decline with these tips:
- Keep blood pressure in check because high blood pressure can mix up brain-cell connections and damage blood vessels.
- Manage your blood sugar, as too much can damage the arteries that nourish your brain cells.
- Develop good sleep habits.
- Use your brain: develop and learn new things.
- Eat nuts and seeds packed with vitamin E, healthy fats, zinc, and magnesium. These foods stimulate brain growth.
- Eat eggs containing choline, which regulates learning, memory, and anxiety. They may also prevent dementia and cognitive decline.
- Avocado provides vitamin E, protecting brain cells from oxidative damage.
How healthy is my heart?
Cardiovascular disease consistently falls among the leading causes of death in men over the age of 45, and for women, the risk factors increase at age 55. This disease is related to a host of health concerns and can be traced to several causes that may begin to manifest earlier in life and become more concerning as you age.
“Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States and is to blame for about one in every four deaths. Since close to two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms, it is imperative to have regular checkups,” Dr. Hollingsworth says.
It’s important to have regular conversations with your health-care provider as you approach age 50 to assess any new potential risk factors when it comes to heart health. Cardiovascular disease includes:
- Coronary heart disease (heart attacks)
- Cerebrovascular disease
- Peripheral artery disease
Coronary heart disease is the most common form in the United States. Hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol are two of the main risk factors for heart disease. If these issues are overlooked for a long period of time, they can lead to a heart attack or stroke and will eventually affect other organs. The best prevention is yearly physicals, along with regular blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, to assess any risks and get ahead of issues before they escalate.
How can I support my immunity overall?
Like most of the body’s systems, immunity weakens with age. Your immune system guards your body against developing any conditions or diseases caused by viral, fungal, and bacterial infections. It also regulates cancerous growths and tumors inside your body. “One of the organs of the immune system, located behind your breastbone, is the thymus. The thymus is where white blood cells called T cells (T lymphocytes) mature,” Dr. Petre explains. “By the time we are young adults, the thymus has begun to shrink, and by middle age, only 15 percent is left. While the number of T cells does not decrease with aging, their function does. This is why the immune system weakens and your chances of getting ill increase.”
As you age, the number of antibodies—which are made in response to an antigen—decreases, and the remaining antibodies are even less able to adhere to the antigen. This helps explain why influenza, pneumonia, and tetanus are more prevalent and cause more deaths as people get older.
To maintain a strong immune system in your 50s and beyond, Dr. Petre suggests:
- Getting vaccinated
- Eating a diet rich in fresh organic fruits and vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Getting a good night’s sleep
- Keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum
- Washing your hands frequently
- Avoiding processed foods and sugar
Whether you are in your 50s or preparing for that decade, being proactive about your health is the key to enjoying life now and in your golden years.