Find out how to get your questions answered.
What's the best way to live longer and feel better as you get older? Your future depends on how you and your doctor talk about aging and health. You can be healthy and happy as you grow older. But if you're not asking your doctor the right questions, and if you don't feel as though your doctor really listens to your concerns, it can lead to problems down the road.
Husband and wife doctors, Dr. Desiree Bley, obstetrician/gynecologist at Women's Health Today, and Dr. Dennis Bley, internist at Broadway Medical Clinic in Portland, Oregon, answered our questions about taking your health and your health care seriously as you age.
Q: When do patients begin seeing doctors about aging issues?
Desiree: Women become concerned during their early 40s, when they notice changes in their mood, energy, sleep, mental clarity and sex drive. They think something's wrong with them because it's too early for menopause. When they're 50, it's irregular bleeding and low back pain. I spend a lot of time reassuring women their symptoms are normal responses to hormonal changes and [that] we can help them feel better. Sometimes reassurance is the best medicine.
Dennis: Guys don't come in specifically for aging issues. It's usually something else, like the mole their wife is bugging them about. Once they're in the office, though, they'll mention joint or low back pain, skin issues and fatigue. They'll start a conversation with, "An older friend of mine … " That's their way of telling me about the aging issues they're worried about, so we can have the conversation about prostate cancer or their father's early heart attack.
Q: What health conditions should patients worry about as they get older?
Desiree: They're the same conditions for men and women. Hypertension, cardiovascular disease … and diabetes don't have obvious symptoms. Frequently, they're only discovered when patients come in for something else. Our challenge is helping patients understand [that] their health is more affected by their lifestyle than aging.
Dennis: Doctors and patients sometimes have different health and aging concerns. For example, my patient might be worried about his knee, which is painful, but not dangerous. I might be worried about his weight, which is causing knee pain plus other serious problems. These aging symptoms provide opportunities to address health factors that can be life-altering.
Q: How does lifestyle impact aging?
Dennis: Stress is huge. For example, many patients worry their memory changes are dementia. That's rarely the case. Usually it's stress. Middle-age Americans don't allow themselves real downtime. Phones, televisions, computers—their brains are always on.
They worry their fatigue, aches and pains are thyroid problems, arthritis or cancer, but usually they're related to obesity and lack of exercise. When patients pay attention to diet, sleep, exercise and stress reduction, many aging symptoms disappear. When they don't, however, cumulative stress factors can cause disease.
Desiree: Sometimes, patients need medical support so they can take better care of themselves. For example, balancing my patient's hormones might help her get good sleep after decades [of] waking up several times per night. That might increase her energy to exercise, which can reduce risks for serious health problems.
Q: Patients complain that doctors don't pay close enough attention to their health concerns around aging. How can patients change that?
Desiree: Realistically, we have about 15 minutes per patient. If a patient presents five major problems, that's only three minutes apiece to understand what's wrong, order tests and treatment, educate and document. If one problem requires more time, other complaints might get less attention. If she presents two problems, however, I can give both the attention they deserve.
Dennis: Plan how you'll use our time together. Lead with your biggest concern. Don't save it for the end of your appointment. Then, follow with your next biggest. Don't spend too much time discussing unrelated stuff like your friend's problem.
Desiree: Patients report they receive great care when their doctor lets them talk as much as they want. Sharing stories is important. When a patient tells me about her aunt's cancer, I understand she needs information about how that impacts her own health. But keep it brief so we stay focused on your concerns. Also, let me ask questions and share my information. That's how we figure out what's going on. Your health is a two-way conversation.
Top tips for taking control of your health care
Here are Desiree and Dennis's top tips for taking control of your health care as you age.
- Understand time constraints. Avoid piling up all your health concerns to put them all into one doctor visit. Instead, make more frequent appointments. Doctors only have a specific amount of time for each office visit.
- Come prepared. Write down your symptoms, questions and concerns so doctors don't miss anything.
- Prioritize. Discuss what worries you most first, not last, even if you're nervous about it.
- Listen. Leave plenty of time to hear your doctor's opinion. That's the information you're paying for. If you think you'll have trouble remembering, take notes.
- Let your doctors do their jobs. Do online research, but don't jump to conclusions about what your symptoms mean or insist on tests you don't need. Doing research yourself can make you feel less stressed, but leave the diagnosis to your doctor. But don't be afraid to get a second opinion if necessary.
Also, you need to focus on the basics, especially as you get older. Eat a healthy diet, make time to exercise, get plenty of sleep and reduce your stress. It may sound simple, but that's what good health is all about—at any age.
Published on Sept. 1, 2011; updated on May 5, 2014.