When exactly does old age begin?

I made a quick estimate of his age as he struggled into my consulting room, swaying to one side and then quickly righting himself. “Eighty plus,” I concluded. His feet wobbled and looked as if they were about to buckle. But despite this obvious difficulty in maintaining his balance, he refused any help from his children. “I can take care of myself,” he snarled at them as they rushed to his assistance to prevent him from falling.

Old men and women often behave like little children – there are glaring similarities and the psychology is probably the same.

When exactly does old age begin? When I was in my teens, for me a 50 year old was an old man. I recall a conversation with my father about an obituary in the paper of a 52-year-old man. “He has tried,” I commented. “Why?” He is an old man, I replied. Dad was alarmed at my response, “You mean if I die now, that’s what you would say about me?” Now, I understand better. Anyone my age or younger than me is a young person!

In many developed countries of the world, 65 years is the accepted definition of the commencement of old age. Here in Nigeria, there is no legal definition of old age. For civil servants, the mandatory retirement age is 60years, while for the university lecturer it is 65 but professors can go on until 70 years of age.

But then, when exactly does old age begin? This is a million dollar question but scientifically, old age begins when the processes of regeneration, replacement and repair of the cellular composition of the body begins to fail. This can be influenced by events in childhood or in adolescence such as chronic malnutrition and chronic illnesses which affect cell-health.

Old age can be viewed in two ways – physical ageing – when one begins to show the effects of age such as shrinking of the skin, loss of teeth or functional ageing when there is a declining ability to cope with the usual physical activities or daily chores. The appearance is the first to show age! But then, appearances are notoriously deceptive, some people at 60 would look as if they are in their 30s while on the other hand, we see some 30-year olds looking like 60-years-olds. Apart from chronic illnesses, environmental and genetic factors do influence the ageing process.

What eye problems do you expect in old age? The commonest eye problem to expect in old age is cataract. It is due to the opacification of the crystalline lens inside the eye. It usually starts gradually and does not pose any challenge until it begins to interfere with your vision. It causes a painless gradual decrease in the acuity of vision.

Something you used to see at a distance gradually becomes increasingly obscure at the same distance. When it starts to limit your activity is the time to do something about it. Fortunately the visual impairment can be reversed by simple surgery often without being admitted into the hospital. Other factors such as blunt trauma, diabetes can cause early onset of cataract.

Can cataract be prevented? No! But its onset can be delayed by eating foods rich in antioxidants such as dark green, leafy vegetables and fruits. Is it always necessary to take dietary supplements? The answer is, “No”, if you eat well.

Glaucoma is another disease of the old age. Unfortunately, it gives no symptoms – no pain or discomfort – and by the time your vision is affected, be sure you are already on your way to irreversible visual impairment of blindness! How do I know if I have glaucoma? You have a choice of regular once a year visit to your eye doctor for a comprehensive eye examination to determine whether or not you have glaucoma and commence early treatment or wait until you notice that your vision is not adequate for your needs! I do hope you won’t wait for this to happen because whatever has been lost in vision is lost for ever.

What other things can you do to keep your sight but to ensure that you remain healthy in your old age? A moderate physical activity in your daily routine to increase the blood flow to your whole body, stay mentally active – read and engage in meaningful discussions for your brain health. A heart-healthy diet will benefit your brain and prevent Alzheimer’s. Dancing has been found to be very effective for staying young. Take less alcohol, quit smoking and keep your diabetes and cardiovascular diseases under control.

Old age in bad health is akin to purgatory on earth. The journey to old age, no matter your age, has begun. Therefore begin now to lay the foundation for a wonderful and pleasurable old age!