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Proven strategies to get the most out of life

The Doctors - | 1/21/2011, 6 a.m.

As you get older, your body and mind change -- it's a normal part of aging that you don't get much say in. Your skin wrinkles, gray hairs sprout, joints start to ache. Sometimes, though, those changes raise your risk of health conditions and disease -- and that's where your choices, lifestyle and habits can influence your fate. On average, Americans are living well into their 70s, and many are enjoying good health. Here are some science-based strategies to help you deal with the most common conditions affecting seniors -- and make the most of your life:

Walk 5 miles a week.

New research shows walking can help slow the progression of Alzheimer's, an irreversible brain disease that slowly destroys memory and cognitive skills. According to the National Institute on Aging, as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer's, and symptoms typically start after age 60. Walking may also help prevent the onset of osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis in older adults. MRI exams showed people at risk for osteoarthritis who did lighter forms of exercise, such as walking or swimming, had the healthiest knee cartilage among all exercise levels, said researchers at the University of California-San Francisco.

Don't be slack on screenings.

The National Cancer Institute recommends women ages 50 and older get annual mammograms; the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says biennial breast cancer screenings are fine. It doesn't seem to matter what the experts say, or the fact that they disagree: A new survey shows nearly 40% of older women don't get tested once a year, or once every two. More than 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and almost 40,000 will die from it. Screenings are an important part of protecting your health, particularly as you age. More guidelines: Blood tests to detect colorectal cancer, every one or two years; Pap smears for cervical cancer once every three years until age 65 (after that, talk to your doctor); routine osteoporosis scans starting at age 65 or at 60 if you are at increased risk.

Eat like a Greek.

Older adults who follow a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet may help lower their risk of type 2 diabetes and improve cognitive function, two recent studies have shown. The main tenets of this heart-healthy diet: Eat mostly plant-based foods (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes); replace butter with olive oil; consume more fish and less red meat; and enjoy moderate amounts of red wine.

Pay attention to bruises.

They are much more common the older you get, especially in women, for two reasons: The skin becomes thinner and loses some of the protective fat padding underneath, so blood vessels are less protected; plus, capillary walls weaken, which makes them more prone to rupture. So a little bump can cause a big black-and-blue. In some cases, though, easy bruising may indicate a more serious condition, such as a bleeding disorder. If your bruises seem to appear for no reason, if they formed after you started a new medication, or you are inexplicably bleeding from your nose and gums, see your doctor.