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Living longer, and generational health concerns

By A. Chris Gajilan
CNN

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(CNN) -- It's a plain fact that Americans are living longer than ever before. Life expectancy is now at a record 77.6 years.

That's an incredible number when you consider that a baby born in 1900 could expect to live only 47.3 years. But by 1950, life expectancy had risen to 68.2 years.

There's no doubt that living longer is the result of advances in medicine and medical procedures. From vaccinations to early diagnosis and long-term treatment, doctors are able to help people fight diseases that were once considered death sentences. Far fewer Americans are dying from major killers -- such as heart disease and cancer.

But are Americans necessarily living healthier lives?

On any given day, almost half of all U.S. women are dieting, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Anti-aging products are a multibillion dollar industry. More and more people seem to be aware of how their bodies look and feel.

"Certainly as the decades march by, the need becomes more and more to get the numbers, know the numbers, track the trends," says Peter Moore, executive editor of Men's Health Magazine.

No, he's not referring to the stock market. He's referring to the human body and the diagnostic numbers for things such as cholesterol and blood pressure.

To be sure, there are clear differences in the body as it ages. The body of a 30-year-old is far different from that of a 50-year-old.

Do you ever wonder why older people need more light to see? By the time you turn 60, your pupils decrease to about one-third the size they were at 20.

Vision is just one example -- of many.

"The 30s are when most people receive their first whiff of mortality ... it's a time when you're first taking a look further on in your life ... depending on how you live in your 30s, the 40s is when it could all start to go horribly wrong," says Moore.

It may sound ominous, but people in each decade of their lives can do relatively simple things to prevent major health problems. A major step according to doctors is simply knowing when to go to the doctor and what to ask when you're there.

For men and women, a doctor's visit can be confusing, even disorienting. It's hard to keep track of all the tests, and the ever-changing screening guidelines.

According to the American Heart Association, the vast majority of women think that breast cancer is the greatest danger to their health.

But in fact, the AHA says that heart disease is the No. 1 killer for both men and women in the U.S. and that it kills more women each year than the next 14 causes of death combined. Breast cancer is second and stroke is third among women.

Various kinds of screening tests are recommended at certain ages. For example, colorectal cancer screening is a must for men and women, but only once they reach their 50s.

Most people know that getting pregnant gets harder as you get older, but just how much harder?

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says that at age 40, a woman has less than a 8 percent chance of conceiving a baby, at 50, the number drops to below one.

As fertility treatment becomes more commonplace and new mothers in their 60s hit the headlines, it's important to remember that reproductive health varies with age. Sperm counts decrease and the shells of women's eggs get thicker.

The act of remembering becomes more difficult with age as well, but doctors say there are specific things to do in your 30s and 40s that can help maintain your memory, like eating foods rich in antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids such as blueberries, salmon, fruits and nuts can actually keep your brain healthy. Regular exercise can boost your heart rate and can boost your memory in old age.

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