Featured Wellness

Aging well: reducing your risk of illness

Aging well
Monica Matys
Written by Monica Matys

We are all getting older, but how can we age in the best way possible while preventing disease? Dr. Jocelyn Charles, Chief in the Department of Family & Community Medicine and Medical Director of the Veterans Centre at Sunnybrook says, the key is to focus not only on improving your lifespan, but your healthspan. This was one of the lectures presented at the latest Speaker Series event.

Dr. Charles says reducing your risk of illness comes down to understanding three main areas: your genetic, lifestyle and environmental risks.


There are many diseases that have a genetic risk component, the common ones include cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis. If you know your risk, you can strive to reduce it through lifestyle measures, such as eating well, staying active and not smoking. Every disease will have specific factors to consider. Outcomes can also be improved by participating in screening to ensure early disease detection and treatment.

Dr. Charles says there are several online resources to consider. On mycanceriq.ca, you can click on different types of cancer to help determine your level of risk. Log onto take2minutes.ca to help determine your level of risk for type 2 diabetes. Try this online tool to check your cardiovascular risk score.


By far, the most potent health intervention you can give yourself is staying physically active, says Dr. Charles. Exercise positively impacts countless areas of your health, and is a powerful tool to prevent or delay illness.

Aim for 2.5- to 5 hours of moderately vigorous physical activity per week, or 30-60 minutes per day. Elevating your heart rate is key, so you should be able to hear yourself breathe but still be able to talk.

Keep your Body Mass Index (BMI) — a calculation based on your height and weight — between 20-25, and your waist circumference in check. For men, that means less than 94 cm, and for women, less than 80 cm. Blood pressure should be less than 140/90, and lower if you have diabetes or kidney disease. Your cholesterol level targets depend on your level of risk, and that’s something your doctor can advise you on.

Physical activity should go hand in hand with a healthy diet, rich in lean fish, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Dr. Charles recommends five to ten servings of veggies or fruits per day – that’s half your plate for every meal! Reduce your intake of red meat, salt and alcohol.

A few other important factors to consider are not smoking, reducing your levels of daily stress and getting between 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.


Dr. Charles says vaccines are among the most critical medical advances of the last century. Talk to your doctor about what is recommended, and ensure your immunization record is up to date.

Taking the proper precautions to prevent injuries, like falls, is also very important. These types of injuries can increase hospital admissions and are a strong predictor of nursing home placement in older people. The fear of falling can also restrict activities, leading to social isolation, depression and decreased functioning. Rather than restricting your activities, Dr. Charles recommends participating in a gradual activity program with the proper safety equipment, such as a protective helmet if appropriate and proper footwear.

And while it sounds simple, don’t overlook handwashing. It reduces the transmission of a host of viruses and bacteria that can lead to serious illness and complications, especially in older people.

» Watch the full Speaker Series lecture on Aging Well

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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