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Keeping degenerative diseases at bay

Can certain diseases that affect us as we age be slowed down or even prevented?

While researchers have been unable to agree on why some of us are affected by degenerative diseases and others are not, most medical experts do suggest that a healthy lifestyle may contribute to warding off potentially devastating effects of such conditions. You can help slow down some conditions by eating healthy, exercising regularly, not smoking and seeing your healthcare provider for checkups and recommended health screenings.

Being aware of certain diseases is important, too, so you can get prompt medical care before a condition worsens. Here’s a look at some common degenerative diseases, the steps you can take to prevent them and the warning signs you should be aware of:

  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a painless eye disease that’s the leading cause of severe vision loss in adults over age 60. It occurs when the macula (at the center of the eye’s retina) becomes damaged, leading to an inability to focus on objects straight ahead of you.

    In addition to following a healthy lifestyle, you can help prevent AMD by wearing sunglasses that protect against ultraviolet rays, since repeated or prolonged exposure can damage your eyes. And be sure to get regular eye exams.

    See your eye doctor if straight lines appear wavy or if your vision becomes blurred.

  • Osteoarthritis and degenerative disk disease plague nearly 21 million Americans. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage between joints wears down, causing pain. Your hips, knees and feet are most susceptible. Degenerative disk disease (osteoarthritis of the spine) occurs when disks between spinal vertebrae deteriorate, causing back stiffness and pain.

    Maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise are key to preventing these conditions. Also, slumping and bad posture can distribute your weight unevenly and strain ligaments.

    See your doctor if you have swelling or stiffness in your joints that lasts for more than two weeks. Medication, self-care (losing weight and exercising) and physical therapy can help relieve your pain and let you move more easily.

  • Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. As healthy brain tissue degenerates, memory and mental abilities decline.

    Studies suggest that staying mentally sharp can delay or prevent Alzheimer’s. So challenge your brain: Read, take up a new sport or musical instrument or do crossword puzzles.

    See your doctor if you are frequently forgetful, disoriented or moody or if you have problems performing everyday tasks or expressing yourself. Medication may slow the disease’s progression.

  • Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that occurs when neurons degenerate in the area of the brain that controls movement.

    Doctors don’t know exactly what causes Parkinson’s, but if you have a close relative with the condition, your risk for developing the disease increases. Some studies suggest that a folate deficiency may make older adults more susceptible to Parkinson’s, so make sure you get an adequate amount of the B vitamin folate. Other research points to unusual exposure to pesticides and herbicides and to reduced estrogen levels in women.

    See your doctor if your limbs tremble, if your muscles feel rigid or if you move slowly or have balance or coordination problems. Treatment can include the drug levodopa (L-dopa) or other drugs and surgeries that may control symptoms.