As I get older, I can’t help but think of my grandmother who I never met.
After moving to Houston, I wore my grandmother Marie’s art deco gold bracelet so much the clasp had become loose, and it needed to be repaired. I always felt close to her, maybe because my mom said we had similar brown eyes. It was comforting to wear a piece of my family history on my wrist.
I stare at photos of her in a light blue dress and a cheetah print shawl where she’s beaming as the mother of the groom. In another photo, she is radiant and youthful, barely 50 years old. I can’t tell if her chocolate-colored hair is natural because my mom said she had started chemo by then. The story the photo doesn’t tell you is that she would pass away nine months later. Just like many busy parents, she did not attend enough annual medical appointments in her 40s for her own health needs. It’s most likely a reason why her breast cancer was found too late.
If I can do anything for her now, it’s to take care of my health and wellbeing. Do I dare admit I’m not as young as I once was, and I see some gray hairs sprouting out of nowhere? September is Healthy Aging Month, which promotes positive aspects of growing older with a focus on health and well-being. This year it means more to me. The truth is, I haven’t been taking care of my health.
I haven’t had a checkup since 2016, back when I moved to Houston. After a divorce, the pandemic and tending to the needs of my two active kids, some years have gone by without an appointment for myself. Last spring, I went to the eye doctor and felt victorious for thinking of my eye health, but when I turned 40 I was supposed to get a mammogram, but I didn’t. I sure wasn’t giving myself a positive start to getting older.
I need to schedule annual checkups, not next year, but now. I also promise myself that in my 40s I will walk more, eat more veggies and fruit and drink more water. I think of my grandma’s short life. There is so much I want to do during the next half of my life, but mostly my kids, being around for them, is my inspiration.
“Our maximum physical body function peaks in your 30s and declines from there,” Dr. Hattie Henderson, a geriatric medicine specialist and a member of the Harris County Medical Society executive board, wrote in an email.
Along with heart and lung exams done during an annual checkup, blood pressure monitoring is important to determine risk for hypertension, Henderson explained. Also, blood work can screen for anemia, cholesterol, thyroid function and diabetes and should be included in evaluations.
Henderson also shared that the earlier a medical illness is diagnosed and the earlier the treatment is begun, the better the outcome.
Of course, this makes sense, I only wish my grandmother had set up an appointment sooner.
I made a list. A visit to my primary doctor, a mammogram, dentist and go from there. Dr. Lisa Ehrlich said many people fell behind in their regular follow-ups and screenings because of the pandemic, and patients are still catching up. Ehrlich specializes in general preventative medicine and is a member of the Texas Medical Association Board of Trustees. She talks to her patients about what she calls “The Holy Health Trinity.” It comes down to having a proper diet, exercise and a regular sleep routine.
Ehrlich emphasized that sleep helps the immune system, and sleep and exercise both can help with depression and anxiety.
Ehrlich said her patients, women in their 40s and 50s, are screened for breast cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer and scheduled pap smears every three years. Men are screened for colon cancer and prostate cancer starting at age 45. A prostate cancer test is a simple blood test, she said. “Colon is preventative. Mammogram is for early detection.” For current or previous smokers, an annual lung cancer screening is ideal, said Ehrlich. A yearly skin check is a good idea, especially if your family has a history of skin cancer.
Ehrlich recommends her patients exercise for 20 minutes a day. We also talked about how isolation is bad for health outcomes. Living in a supportive environment, physical closeness, companionship and interaction with others is imperative for wellbeing. Ehrlich said the Harvard Happiness Study found that people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were also the healthiest at age 80. Her hope is that her patients have wellness, community and joy throughout their life.
Geriatrics isn’t the most glamorous profession so most who do it are called to it, said Dr. Aanand Naik, geriatrician and director of the Institute on Aging at UTHealth Houston, when I asked him what inspired his career.
“My average patient is over 75 years old,” he said.
He reminisced about growing up in a multigenerational home with all four of his grandparents, even his great-grandmother. His family influenced his interest in geriatric medicine and multiple chronic conditions, and he was driven by how the care and treatment for the older population can be improved.
When I asked about the research he is excited about at the Institute, Naik cited artificial intelligence and mining data from electronic medical records to make predictions about health, illness and individual aging. Some of his colleagues who are laboratory scientists are trying to understand the biology of aging on a cellular level.
“Maybe down the line there will be some therapies, medications or guided treatments that might be able to tackle mechanisms of the aging process,” Naik said. “We aren’t there yet, it’s probably years away, but at least people are thinking about it.”
One of the first things I learned about Houston was the life of Charlotte Baldwin Allen. She was the wife of Augustus Chapman Allen, who used her inheritance to finance the founding of the city and is remembered as the “Mother of Houston.” She lived to be 90.
Before the pandemic, life expectancy in Harris County was 78.9 years old, according to UT Southwestern Medical Center scientists, and it can vary dramatically depending on where you live. Life expectancy by ZIP codes ranged from 69.8 (77026) in the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood and to 89.7 years (77073) in north Houston encompassing the Westfield community along Interstate 45 and west of George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
By 2050, it’s projected that there will be more than 1 million adults age 65 and older in Harris County. In the U.S., the population of adults 65 and older is projected to nearly double during the next three decades, from 48 million to 88 million by 2050.
Population data is driving new innovations for hospital systems in Houston. According to data for southwest Houston, in 2020, seniors 65 and older made up nearly 12 percent of the population. By 2025, it is predicted that they will make up nearly 27 percent of the population. This is why in 2022, Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital opened a unit dedicated to providing specialized care to older adults in the community, the hospital system said in a statement for this story.
Houstonians don’t feel like they are healthy. In 2019, nearly one out of four adults in Harris County rated their health as “fair” or “poor.”
It may have something to do with out-of-pocket costs for health screenings. This could mean more people are not getting properly screened to prevent illnesses and then not scheduling follow-up testing because of the expense.
Many uninsured people do not obtain the treatment their health care providers recommend for them because of the cost of care, according to The Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Studies repeatedly demonstrate that uninsured individuals are less likely than those with insurance to receive preventive care and services for major health conditions and chronic diseases,” the foundation says.
When I make an appointment, the out-of-pocket cost for a mammogram and checkup will be around $300 not including labs, a blood test and any follow-up testing, which will go on my credit card.
When it comes to affordable or low-cost services that help the older population live fuller and active lives, I reached out to The Houston-Galveston Area Agency on Aging (AAA), which aims to help older Texans remain independent and healthy by providing services and assistance with Medicare. The agency has over 8,000 older adults registered for personal assistance, home-delivered meals, case management and transportation services.
“We like to encourage older adults to check out their local senior centers. Many of these senior centers offer physical activity classes, health promotion classes, opportunities to connect with others, and healthy meals at no cost for the participant,” the AAA said in a statement.
For now simple things like stretching more often is on my mind as I enter my 40s, taking an extra lap on the walking trail, trying out a yoga class and continuing to focus on my well-being by feeding my soul and mind with calming walks and views of sunflowers, pines, and observing doves, wrens, cardinals fly by.
Time feels faster suddenly. I can’t believe I have been a mom of two kids for 10 years. I want to believe my 40s, 50s and 60s will hold some of the best years. I can’t believe my grandmother lived less than nine more years, from the age I am now.
All I can think is: She missed so much of what her life could have been.
My grandmother’s memory is still alive when I look at my wrist. I had her bracelet fixed at a jewelry store on Westheimer to repair the clasp, and I’m wearing it again.