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A woman in your 80s? What you need to know about your overall health

In this decade social connections are more important than ever

Áilín Quinlan talks to experts about the big issues for 80-somethings, including the physical frailty associated with loss of muscle mass and strength.


A poor appetite and forgetfulness about eating can be a feature of this decade, warns consultant nutritionist Gaye Godkin.

In this context, she says, it’s important that people at this stage receive more help and supervision in terms of ensuring they have a healthy daily routine.


“I’ve seen lots of elderly people who have food in their cupboards and fridges which is out of date as they’ve forgotten it’s there. This is a common occurrence,” says Godkin

“Older women may become depressed, which can suppress the appetite, so it really is crucial for family members to keep an eye on older people.”

Here’s What You Need:

Women at this point in life will often find they cannot digest big meals such as steaks and meat.

Little and often is the key, Godkin advises, adding that women may need encouragement to eat properly.

“Women may tend to gravitate to tea, toast and marmalade, which is an instant glucose fix but void of any real nutrients.

Foods need to be soft to take into account denture capacity and a woman’s digestive function at this age, she says.

Godkin recommends porridge and natural yogurts with soaked prunes, figs and apricots and soaked raisins for breakfast.

Vegetable soups with well-cooked lentils or barley make a very good lunch:

“Barley is a wonderful grain as it’s packed full of fibre and slow release complex sugars to support digestion.” Bananas can make a healthy snack, she adds.

For dinner, try mashed potatoes with butter or olive oil or mashed potato with turnips for extra fibre. “Carrot and parsnip mash is a wonderful root vegetable mash and supports digestion,” says Godkin.

Cupboard essentials include trimmed salmon, mackerel and sardines, which are easy to eat and excellent for muscle and bone health, as well as acting as a good source of omega 3 oils and vitamin D.

“Every elderly Irish person needs to supplement with vitamin D,” she says, adding that eggs are a very good food as they’re versatile and easy to cook. Stewed fruit as a dessert will both satisfy a sweet tooth and support your digestion.

Fruit is very important for good digestion and bowel function and hydration

“Try stewed fruit with some boiled rice and honey and natural yoghurt. Eat a natural yoghurt every day. Have it with soaked prunes or soaked figs, as well as fruit, berries, banana, stewed apple and pear. It supports the gut and the digestion and is easy to buy and eat with no preparation required.

“Fruit is very important for good digestion and bowel function and hydration,” says Godkin. People at this stage in life should eat up to three pieces of fruit per day, she adds.

Health issues worth considering:

Heart issues can come to the fore around now, says Dr Fiona O'Reilly, a GP and lifestyle medicine expert, based in west Cork.

“Atrial fibrillation, a form of irregular heartbeat, can cause stroke, so it’s important to know how to take your own pulse.

“Place your index and middle fingers on the underside of your wrist where the thumb meets the wrist-bone. Count for 20 beats and if you feel the pulse is not regular, consult your GP.”

Every woman over the age of 80 should have a yearly electrocardiogram (ECG) which is a screen for atrial fibrillation, recommends O’Reilly.

“If atrial fibrillation is diagnosed, you are at a high risk of small blood clots travelling from the heart to the brain, which causes stroke.

Another issue at this time of life are the risks posed by falls

“Your GP or cardiologist will prescribe a blood thinner to prevent this devastating condition from happening” she explains.

Another issue at this time of life, she says, are the risks posed by falls, potentially resulting in head injuries or fractured hips.

“As we get older, falls can be caused by a number of factors,” says Dr O’Reilly.

Risk of falls

Medication is one reason. Blood pressure tablets may now have a stronger effect, resulting in a higher risk of falls. “Sleeping medication can cause over-relaxation of the muscles, which in turn can lead to falls if someone gets out of bed in the middle of the night, for example, while diabetes medication can lower blood sugar levels too much.”

Medication needs to be reviewed regularly, she warns.

Falls can also be caused by a “nipping” of the vertebral artery by the neck bones, which can occur when your reach above your head or look up suddenly, says Dr O’Reilly. She recommends women consulting a physiotherapist about gentle exercises to help keep the neck supple. A lavender neck cushion, which can be heated in the microwave, can help to soften the muscles of the neck and release any neck spasm.

Another health issue for people in their 80s is skin ulcers and pressure sores.

“Skin can break down more easily at this time, which can lead to problems such as ulcers, pressure sores and cellulitis, which is a bacterial skin infection.

To avoid this, routinely moisturise the skin below the elbows and below the knees twice a day with a fragrance-free moisturiser.

“This keeps the skin supple and helps prevent cracking,” says Dr O’Reilly, who explains that consuming foods containing sufficient protein, vitamin C and zinc helps prevent tissue breakdown which can result in skin infections.


Arthritis is another painful condition that can come with age. It can affect the hips, knees shoulders, spine, hands and feet, causing stiffness and pain. It can also lower mood. If arthritis is a problem, see your doctor, advises O’Reilly who suggests applying an anti-inflammatory gel or a bio-freeze gel to the joint if the skin is not broken.

Take paracetamol regularly and consume fish oils, vitamin D and turmeric, which can help ease the pain and reduce the inflammation.

“Also ensure that you keep moving so that the joints do not stiffen up. Regular massage by a trained therapist can help, as can steroid injections from your GP.”

Lastly, she says, anyone in their 80s who is confined to bed should have a special medical mattress, called a “conforming” mattress, which helps prevent pressure sores.


Thirty minutes of daily exercise is recommended for this age group, says O’Reilly. This can be divided into sets of three 10-minute sessions if required.

“If you find you tend to sit for long periods, make a point of getting up and moving around every 15 minutes,” says O’Reilly. Yoga, she explains, can be practised by people of any age and physical capacity.

“Also practise regular gentle exercises to maintain your strength, such as getting out of a chair unassisted, or standing on one foot while brushing your teeth. “Swimming is a good non-weight-bearing exercise which helps to keep the joints supple.”

Mental Wellbeing

Don't be invisible, counsels mental health expert, GP and author Dr Harry Barry. "A feeling of invisibility is something many older people in their 80s talk about," says Barry who advocates the benefits of social connections. For starters, it helps to prevent the onset of both depression and Alzheimer's, he says.

Maintain your contacts with family, friends, neighbours and the wider community, as this also helps prevent feelings of loneliness.

Stay connected with the young people in your life, such as grandchildren, as it helps you to stay young.

And remain cognitively active. “Read books, do puzzles and maintain enjoyable hobbies like bridge. Read newspapers and keep up to date with current affairs. All of this is very important to prevent depression and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Tip for making the most of your decade:

Don’t be invisible! Stay in regular contact with family, friends and young people, and remain cognitively active, advises Dr Harry Barry, who says this helps combat the advance of depression and Alzheimer’s.

Health & Fitness advice through the Decades
- Women in their 20s
- Men in their 20s
- Women in their 30s
- Men in their 30s
- Women in their 40s
- Men in their 40s
- Women in their 50s
- Men in their 50s
- Women in their 60s
- Men in their 60s

- Women in their 70s
- Men in their 70s

- Women in their 80s
- Men in their 80s