As summer comes to an end, students return to school, and fall weather settles in, an anticipation of new adventures and exciting opportunities surround the last months of the year. September is Healthy Aging Month, and it is the perfect time for all people who care about their health and wellness to do their best to remain healthy.
When it comes to aging, our appearance says a thousand words about our health. Visible health is the physical presentation of the outer body. It is the overall appearance of one’s hair, skin, nails, eyes and oral cavity, as well as any associated diseases, impairments or symptoms.
It is influenced by our physical, mental and social health. Healthy aging means that you confidently get older free of disease while looking and feeling your best.
Your physical presentation aligns with your internal health and indicates that steps are being taken to preserve health and prevent disease. Healthy aging also requires early intervention when concerns arise to help cure disease and heal the body.
The biggest factors impacting visible health and aging are diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, sleep, tanning, hygiene and disease. For example, colorectal cancer is linked to a fatty diet and obesity; smoking can cause lung and genital cancers; liver and pancreatic cancers are associated with alcohol consumption; and tanning bed use increases the risk of skin cancer. Sleep deprivation can result in heart disease and stroke.
Therefore, lifestyle choices play a major role in visible health, aging, and disease risk and prevention. The choices we make determine our visible wellness and how well we age.
Diabetes mellitus is a condition that disproportionately affects people of color and impacts visible health and aging. Diabetes can present with visible findings and symptoms such as increased thirst and urination, increased weight and obesity, darkening and thickening of the skin in the body folds called acanthosis nigricans, poorly healing leg and foot ulcers, and severely dry or stiff skin.
While diabetes is an internal disease, its visible manifestations can alert an individual that something is wrong and could be potentially life-threatening if not treated.
In addition to physical presentation, visible health can be quantified through metrics such as body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, certain blood tests (e.g. hemoglobin A1C, hemoglobin, iron stores, thyroid function tests), and average sleep duration. Abnormal findings negatively impact aging and threaten one’s longevity.
For instance, untreated diabetes can present with an elevated blood test called hemoglobin A1C. High blood pressure is associated with increased BMI and body fat percentage. Lung disease from cigarette smoking can affect respiratory rate, heart rate, and blood pressure.
In addition to changes in these vital signs, changes in the body presentation, discolored and wrinkled skin of the face, lips and fingers, and increased risk of lung cancer are all changes with potentially visible manifestations in the setting of cigarette smoking.
A universal sign of healthy aging is healthy skin. As we age, benign visible growths like sun damage spots, seborrheic keratoses, skin tags, and hemangiomas form on the skin. This may be associated with genetics or weathering of the skin over years.
While those growths are visible but not worrisome, malignant growths like skin cancer or cancer spread from internal organs may also occur. These cancerous growths may present with symptoms, such as rapid growth, bleeding, pain, or other discomfort.
Symptomatic skin growths should not be ignored. If you have visible signs of changing or worrisome lesions or have other concerns about your internal health, see your doctor to evaluate your overall health. Resolve to age gracefully this month and always by being proactive and through positive lifestyle choices that promote a long, disease-free life.