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Health in the know

Tips from Tallgrass Creek’s top doc

Created date

February 20th, 2014
woman and doctor

It is easy to see why Dr. Austin Welsh, a graduate of Yale University, Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-’80s, board-certified geriatrician, and Creek’s on-site medical director, is more than a physician to his patients. 

“He is a different kind of doctor,” says Ina Jo Pace, one of the first residents to move to Tallgrass Creek six years ago. “He is a wonderful listener, has tremendous medical knowledge, and combines it with a spirituality that is comforting and, in many ways, healing.”

We recently caught up with Welsh, consistently ranked among the top doctors in all Erickson Living communities, to ask about current health care trends for seniors.

Tribune: What are three things seniors can do to keep in good physical shape? 

Welsh: One, join an exercise class. Two, eat mindfully. Three, sing. (As a tenor for the St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Choir in Westwood, Kans., Welsh knows all about the restorative effects of singing.)

Tribune: What activities and/or lifestyle choices lead to continued mental acuity? 

Welsh: Recent studies at the University of Kansas consistently show daily physical exercise measurably reduces progression of dementia. 

Participating in social activities and having a peer group to share life is a consistent finding in the longest-lived and healthiest populations.

Eating enough to satisfy but not overeating is also a hallmark of healthy seniors.

Tribune: How are social interaction and wellness related?

Welsh: There is still much to learn about how a person’s health improves with social interaction, but many markers to immunity, such as T-cell function, have shown that those who socialize and find interest in interacting and helping others live healthier lives. Social interaction can also prevent depression, a common yet unnecessary disease of aging and a cause for memory loss. 

Tribune: Are nutritional supplements and vitamins helpful to overall well-being?

Welsh: Probably not to overall well-being, although in many seniors B12 deficiency is common and underdiagnosed, and in everyone, vitamin D deficiency is pandemic. B12 helps prevent fatigue and dementia, and vitamin D boosts the immune system and seems to prevent some infections. Many people report less hip and knee arthritis with glucosamine and chondroitin.

Dietary omega-3 essential fatty acids promote cardiovascular health; they are highly concentrated in nerve tissue. However, fish oil supplements have not proven successful in some trials in preventing heart attacks and strokes. Still, if given the choice to eat omega-3 eggs or those without it, eat the omega-3s. And eat cold-water ocean fish. 

Multivitamins have not been shown to help and are now officially discouraged.

Tribune: What is an important thing you know now as a practicing physician you didn’t know as a young medical student? 

Welsh: Most of what the physician does with the patient is not based on biochemistry at all but on psychology. Knowing this does not mitigate the healing experience but rather enhances it. 

I have told my medical students to avoid work at a primary-care clinic that does not have a social worker, psychologist, minister, or other such professional close at hand. At least half of what bothers the patient is ultimately due to mistaken but voluntary lifestyle choices, so the physician is often in the business of encouraging change. A professional counselor can make transitions easier for patients and help them reach their goals faster.

We routinely make use of physical, occupational, and speech therapists but need to enlist more spiritual and behavioral therapists. Pills for anxiety are not the only answer. A good physician helps find alternatives that will lead patients to wellness—not just cover up their symptoms.