Physician Health

How older adult physicians can keep health, well-being top of mind

Marc Zarefsky , Contributing News Writer

Physician burnout remains a critical challenge facing the health care system, and physicians 65 or older are not immune to the ongoing epidemic.

More than half of physicians report signs of burnout such as emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. One way to combat those feelings, particularly for older adult physicians, is to explore one of the newest medical specialties: lifestyle medicine. 

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There are 11,000 members in the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

At its core, lifestyle medicine emphasizes six pillars to improve care. They are:

  • Routine physical activity.
  • Nutritious food.
  • Sound, restorative sleep.
  • Stress resiliency.
  • Positive social connection.
  • Avoidance of risky substances.

“Diabetes, obesity, coronary artery disease, metabolic syndrome, mental health conditions—these are lifestyle related,” Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD, president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, said during a recent episode of “AMA Update.”

“Those pillars … have a significant impact on those chronic conditions,” added Dr. Frates, a physiatrist and a clinical associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “We have to tackle the lifestyle if we really want to get ahold of these noncommunicable diseases.”

But lifestyle medicine extends beyond improving patient care. It can also help older adult physicians improve their health and well-being.

In honor of Older Americans Month, May is marked each year as AMA Senior Physicians Recognition Month. Learn about the AMA Senior Physicians Section, which gives voice to and advocates on issues that affect senior physicians, who may be working full time or part time or be retired.

“Surely, we’re physicians, but we need to have our own physician. We need our own annual checkups, labs and routine procedures so that we can be sure that we are healthy,” Dr. Fates said.

That is also why the pillars of lifestyle medicine are particularly pivotal for older adult physicians, whether they are considering retirement or looking to fend off burnout. It's important for older physicians to think holistically and consider exercise, eating healthy foods and sleep.

“And then for your mind, we want a peaceful mind at work and in retirement, so we want to think about stress, resiliency, time-outs and our attitude,” Dr. Frates said. “When we have an attitude of gratitude, when we have a growth mindset, we tend to be happier and healthier.” 

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Some physicians want to continue practicing as long as they can because it provides them with a sense of purpose. Other physicians want to keep practicing to bolster their income. For older adult physicians looking to retire soon, Dr. Frates recommends thinking through the potential consequences on their morale.

“We know that physicians will suffer upon retirement when they don’t continue to live their purpose, so if you’re going to retire from your practice … there’s a plethora of opportunities for you so that you can still fulfill your purpose and use your strengths,” she said. For example, older adult physicians can mentor, teach, consult or get involved in their community.

Older adult physicians should also find ways to “continue to stay social,” Dr. Frates said. “This could be in medicine or outside. But if you can continue to connect … but also create a new community of people who you are working with, socializing outside of medicine, that’s really going to help.”

“We need to think about our energy—what drains our energy and what gives us energy," she said. “If you're going to stay in practice or you're going to leave, I'd love for you to think about the six pillars and your sense of purpose."

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