Getting older can seem daunting—greying hair, wrinkles, forgetting where you parked the car. All jokes aside, aging can bring about unique health issues. With seniors accounting for 12 percent of the world’s population–and rapidly increasing to over 22 percent by 2050–it’s important to understand the challenges faced by people as they age, and recognize that there are preventive measures that can place yourself (or a loved one) on a path to healthy aging.
1. Chronic health conditions
According to the National Council on Aging, about 92 percent of seniors have at least one chronic disease and 77 percent have at least two. Heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes are among the most common and costly chronic health conditions causing two-thirds of deaths each year. The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends meeting with a physician for an annual checkup, maintaining a healthy diet and keeping an exercise routine to help manage or prevent chronic diseases. Obesity is a growing problem among older adults and engaging in these lifestyle behaviors can help reduce obesity and associated chronic conditions.
2. Cognitive health
Cognitive health is focused on a person’s ability to think, learn and remember. The most common cognitive health issue facing the elderly is dementia, the loss of those cognitive functions. Approximately 47.5 million people worldwide have dementia—a number that is predicted to nearly triple in size by 2050. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease with as many as five million people over the age of 65 suffering from the disease in the United States. According to the National Institute on Aging, other chronic health conditions and diseases increase the risk of developing dementia, such as substance abuse, diabetes, hypertension, depression, HIV and smoking. While there are no cures for dementia, physicians can prescribe a treatment plan and medications to manage the disease.
3. Mental health
According to the World Health Organization, over 15 percent of adults over the age of 60 suffer from a mental disorder. A common mental disorder among seniors is depression, occurring in seven percent of the elderly population. Unfortunately, this mental disorder is often underdiagnosed and undertreated. Older adults account for over 18 percent of suicides deaths in the United States. Because depression can be a side effect of chronic health conditions, managing those conditions help. Additionally, promoting a lifestyle of healthy living such as betterment of living conditions and social support from family, friends or support groups can help treat depression.
4. Physical injury
Every 15 seconds, an older adult is admitted to the emergency room for a fall. A senior dies from falling every 29 minutes, making it the leading cause of injury among the elderly. Because aging causes bones to shrink and muscle to lose strength and flexibility, seniors are more susceptible to losing their balance, bruising and fracturing a bone. Two diseases that contribute to frailty are osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. However, falls are not inevitable. In many cases, they can be prevented through education, increased physical activity and practical modifications within the home.
5. HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases
In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 21 percent of AIDS cases occurred in seniors over the age of 50 in the United States, and 37 percent of deaths that same year were people over the age of 55. While sexual needs and ability may change as people age, sexual desire doesn’t disappear completely. Seniors are unlikely to use condoms, which, when combined with a weakened immune system, makes the elderly more susceptible to contracting HIV. Late diagnosis of HIV is common among older adults because symptoms of HIV are very similar to those of normal aging, making it more difficult to treat and prevent damage to the immune system.
Malnutrition in older adults over the age of 65 is often underdiagnosed and can lead to other elderly health issues, such as a weakened immune system and muscle weakness. The causes of malnutrition can stem from other health problems (seniors suffering from dementia may forget to eat), depression, alcoholism, dietary restrictions, reduced social contact and limited income. Committing to small changes in diet, such as increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and decreasing consumption of saturated fat and salt, can help nutrition issues in the elderly. There are food services available to older adults who cannot afford food or have difficulty preparing meals.
7. Sensory impairments
Sensory impairments, such as vision and hearing, are extremely common for older Americans over the age of 70. According to the CDC, one out of six older adults has a visual impairment and one out of four has a hearing impairment. Luckily, both of these issues are easily treatable by aids such as glasses or hearing aids. New technologies are enhancing assessment of hearing loss and wearability of hearing aids.
8. Oral health
Often overlooked, oral health is one of the most important issues for the elderly. The CDC’s Division of Oral Health found that about 25 percent of adults over the age of 65 no longer have their natural teeth. Problems such as cavities and tooth decay can lead to difficulty maintaining a healthy diet, low self-esteem, and other health conditions. Oral health issues associated with older adults are dry mouth, gum disease and mouth cancer. These conditions could be managed or prevented by making regular dental check-ups. Dental care, however, can be difficult for seniors to access due to loss of dental insurance after retirement or economical disadvantages.
9. Substance abuse
Substance abuse, typically alcohol or drug-related, is more prevalent among seniors than realized. According to the National Council on Aging, the number of older adults with substance abuse problems is expected to double to five million by 2020. Because many don’t associate substance abuse with the elderly, it’s often overlooked and missed in medical check-ups. Additionally, older adults are often prescribed multiple prescriptions to be used long-term. The National Institute on Drugs finds that substance abuse typically results from someone suffering mental deficits or taking another patient’s medication due to their inability to pay for their own.
10. Bladder control and constipation
Incontinence and constipation are both common with aging, and can impact older adults quality of life. In addition to age-related changes, these may be a side effect of previous issues mentioned above, such as not eating a well-balanced diet and suffering from chronic health conditions. The Mayo Clinic suggests maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly to avoid these elderly health issues. There are often effective medical treatments, and older adults should not be embarrassed to discuss with their physicians.
Feature Courtesy of Texas A&M University School of Medicine