Senior Health: Nature or Nurture?

April 11, 2019


The secret to a long life? Take a two-mile walk every day before breakfast.

– Harry Truman


If only it were that simple, right? Although our 33rd President did live to be 88, his secret to a long life leaves out the huge complexities around the roles that genetics and lifestyle play in longevity. Particularly when it comes to the top five causes of death for people over 65 – heart disease, cancer, COPD, stroke, and Alzheimer’s – doctors see a lot of interplay between family history and healthy life choices that affect our risk for developing these diseases. Generally, in the senior living years there’s predisposition to risk (which is real for all of these conditions), and then there is the power we have to either offset that risk or delay disease onset, which is also seen as hugely significant in senior health.


Genetic Risk Factors

Taking a thorough family history is top on your doctor’s list for good reason. Here’s an overview of the role it plays in the most common senior illnesses:

  • Heart Disease: when it comes to heart attack, high blood pressure, and strokes, both family history and race are considered significant factors in our risk of onset (see more on strokes below). Researchers are also working to identify specific genes that cause risk; scientists at Harvard have recently developed genetic testing to help predict risk more accurately.
  • Cancer: Because of the many types of cancer and their widely interpreted causal factors, family history plays a varied role across the diagnostic spectrum. Generally speaking, family history is seen as pertinent to colorectal, ovarian, breast, and uterine cancers.
  • COPD: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a broad term referring to progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and non-reversible asthma. While smoking greatly increases one’s risk of developing COPD, it is eclipsed by family history in recent compelling research from the  NIH.
  • Stroke: If your parent, grandparent, or sibling suffered a stroke you may be at greater risk. Other predetermined factors like race and gender also increase your odds of stroke happening.
  • Alzheimer’s: Having a parent, sibling, or grandparent with Alzheimer’s increases your risk of diagnosis. The likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s increases with each additional family member who has suffered.


Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Genetics aside – and sometimes because of them – doctors strongly point to senior living lifestyle choices and the critical role they can play in delaying or even preventing these common illnesses. Whether it’s heart disease or Alzheimer’s, experts coalesce around the following guidelines:

  • Stick to a heart- and brain-healthy Mediterranean diet of lean protein, nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits.
  • Commit to an exercise regimen that’s doable, ideally involving daily stretching, strengthening, light cardio, and balance work. See the full US Department of Health and Human Services guidelines here.
  • Avoid sitting for long periods to stimulate healthy blood flow and bodily function.
  • Abstain from any tobacco products, and limit alcohol intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men, no more than 1 per day for women. See full CDC guidelines here.

The CDC has developed some useful tools in helping you and your doctor determine your level of risk for serious illness; download My Family Health Portrait to get started.

Also, explore your senior living options and select the lifestyle that gives you the best start on a healthy senior life. Download our guide and learn more.

Download Guide