Aging

Many seniors get unnecessary and potentially harmful cancer tests

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Screening — checking a seemingly healthy person for signs of hidden disease — is an important part of routine medical care. It is done for various types of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Screening makes sense when finding and treating a hidden condition will prevent premature death or burdensome symptoms. But it doesn’t make sense when it can’t do either. That’s why experts recommend stopping screening in older individuals, especially those who aren’t likely to live another five or 10 years. Yet an article published online in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that many doctors still recommend cancer screening tests for their older patients. Many don’t benefit, and some are even harmed by the practice. Asking people who can’t benefit from a cancer screening test to have one is a waste of their time and money, not to mention a waste of taxpayer money (since these tests are usually covered by Medicare). Screening tests can also cause physical and mental harm. Decisions about cancer screening should be mutually made by an individual and his or her doctor. Equally important, the person should be well informed about the risks of the test and about what will happen if a test suggests there may be cancer that won’t shorten the his or her life.

Walking, other exercise helps seniors stay mobile, independent

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

If you want to stay healthy and mobile well into old age, start walking today—even if you’ve already edged into “old age.” That’s the conclusion of a report from the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) trial, published online yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Frail, inactive older people between the ages of 70 and 89 who started exercising were less likely to have become disabled over the course of a 30-month trial than a similar group who took part in workshops on healthy aging. Some older people they have passed the age at which starting an exercise program will do them any good. These new findings reinforce what other studies have shown: You’re never too old to exercise.

Want to live to age 120? Most Americans say no

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

As medical research and healthy living continues to extend life, the Pew Research Center asked more than 2,000 Americans if they would take advantage of medical treatments to slow the aging process and let them live to age 120. More than half (56%) said they would not, but 65% thought that other people would want it. The Pew survey did not ask why most adults would not want life extending treatment. Previous work has identified what people fear about getting too old. These include loss of independence, running out of money, not being able to live at home, pain, and more. But there are ways to minimize the problems that come with age. The strategies, like exercising and not smoking aren’t sexy, nor do they rely on medical breakthroughs. But they can maximize one’s “healthspan” as well as lifespan.