It's a safe bet to assume most people aspire to be as independent and healthy in their golden years as they can be. Statistics indicate that aspiration requires a fair amount of work and attention as we grow older.

According to a recent study involving the American Council on Aging, 90 percent of Los Angeles seniors surveyed said they were confident of maintaining the quality of their life as they age. Yet studies are revealing that only a fraction are actually taking steps to manage their health.

Longer life spans and aging baby boomers will double the population of Americans over the age of 65 during the coming decades to about 72 million. By 2030, older adults will account for around 20 percent of the U.S. population. During the past century, a major shift took place in the leading causes of death for all age groups, especially in older adults.

In yesteryear, infectious diseases and acute illnesses were responsible for most deaths in the aging population. Today, the leading causes of death among seniors come by way of chronic diseases and degenerative illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, as well as by disabilities and injuries from falls. More than one-third of adults 65 or older fall each year. Seven of every 10 Americans who die each year, die from a chronic disease. Two out of every three older Americans have multiple chronic conditions accounting for 66 percent of the country's healthcare budget. So what's keeping us from staying healthy later in life? A few things.

First, as we age, our metabolism slows. Even people in their late 20s can be surprised to gain a few pounds when they have not changed any of their eating or activity habits. After the age of 25, when our bodies stop growing bone, the metabolic rate goes down by two percent or more per decade. So, in order to maintain the same weight without changing activity level, you need to reduce daily calories by the same amount.

Aches and pains can keep us from exercising as much as we should and healthy eating takes more effort and is a bit more expensive than processed meals. Taking advantage of preventative care can also be an issue, especially for those with underlying health concerns. There seem to be two groups of patients we see. Those who do have their health checked periodically and those who avoid seeing a doctor at all costs. A number of patients buy into the old myth that somehow after age 60-65 there's just nothing you can do anymore to maintain your vigor. While there certainly will be some changes that occur with getting older, it doesn't have to mean disability and disease. There are many things you can do to improve your function and health well into older age. It's never too late to begin living a healthier lifestyle. Even into their late 60s and 70s, adults can reduce their risk of developing chronic disease and avoid disabilities from falls.

First, eat better. People who eat at least five cups of fruits and vegetables a day have lower blood pressure, less cardiovascular disease, lower rates of cancer and have a better immune system.

Next, exercise. It helps control body weight, lowers your blood pressure and strengthens your muscles, which helps you avoid injuries by improving balance, making you less likely to fall. Increased muscle mass also helps your body metabolize medications more like a young person and are cleared from your body more efficiently. If you need yet another reason, physical activity has also been linked to a decreased risk of dementia. Finally, preventive measures, such as getting that yearly flu shot and getting screened for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers, are also important to successful aging.

Dr. Linda McCormick works in family practice through St. Mary's Medical Center and can be reached at 816-228-1000.