Let’s face it – we are all getting old. From the moment we are born, we gradually age and experience changes that are expected of ageing. We become wiser, more experienced and even begin to face certain health problems that are common in older age.
The ageing phenomenon is a complex process and goes down to the cellular level. What were once healthy cells begin to gradually shrivel and deteriorate. Our hair becomes grey, skin loses its normal tensile strength and our bones become weaker.
There is a lot more to ageing than just appearance. A number of different health problems can accompany getting older and in this article we shall briefly touched upon some of the common diseases in old age adults.
Common Diseases In Old Age:
Let’s start with some of the common ones and move on to some of the rarer ones later in the article.
But before we go ahead, it is important to recognise the fact that following a healthy lifestyle, performing regular exercise and eating healthy foods can reduce the chances of developing age-related health problems significantly. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 41% of people over the age of 65 say that they have good health. This means that a significant portion of them do not have good health.
Probably the most common condition encountered as we get older is arthritis. Arthritis refers to damage of the commonly used joints such as the hip joint, knee joint, hands and foot joints. Arthritis is a classic ageing phenomenon and occurs because of the damage to the tissues that form the joints.
Any joint in the human body is composed of bone, cartilage and the presence of a lubricating fluid called synovial fluid. As we get older, the synovial fluid reduces in quantity and the constant wear and tear on the bones and cartilage leads to damage to the surface of these structures. The combination of these two problems can lead to these bones and cartilages rubbing against each other and causing pain when movements take place.
Ask any medical professional if you wish and they will tell you that arthritis is probably the most common of the old-age diseases. It can cause a great deal of disability and can significantly impact quality of life in a negative manner. People who have previously been independent may find that they are not able to do their daily tasks due to this arthritis.
Arthritis tends to be more common in women as they get older though men can be significantly affected as well. The mainstay of treatment includes physiotherapy and exercises along with weight loss. Calcium supplements may be prescribed along with other joint supplements that can improve the health of the cartilage.
Those who have smoked for many years begin to develop lung problems as they get older. But in India, the high degree of pollution means that even those who do not smoke develop lung disease with advancing age. The common disease affecting older individuals is called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also called chronic bronchitis or COPD. Another condition that may affect older individuals is interstitial lung disease. Asthma is also very prevalent in older people in India.
Whatever the condition, the primary problem that is associated with having lung disease is breathing difficulty. People who are only able to walk 4 to 5 km at a stretch may find that they can walk only shorter distances and that too with a great deal of effort. Breathing difficulty at night may cause disturbance in sleep patterns and excessive sleepiness during the daytime. Wheezing sounds might be heard when breathing. Constant fatigue is a common symptom when lung disease is present. The lower immunity of the lung tissue increases the chances of developing pneumonias and chest infections.
One way of determining whether you have lung disease or not is to undergo a pulmonary function test, also called a lung function test. You can talk to your doctor regarding how to arrange this simple investigation. You may also want to discuss the requirement for a pneumonia vaccine. The pneumonia vaccine can prevent the development of fatal pneumonia.
We all dread the development of cancer. As we get older, there are certain types of cancers that are more prominent after the age of 65 years. According to the CDC, cancer is the second leading cause of death in people over the age of 65.
The common cancers seen in women include breast cancer, ovarian cancer and uterine cancer. In men, prostate cancer and lung cancer tend to be more common. Bowel cancer is also well recognised especially in those who have a family history of the problem.
The best way to treat cancer is to do your best to prevent it from developing. Those who have a family history of cancer should undergo periodic screening tests to make sure that the disease is picked up early and treatment options are more available. Those who smoke should stop doing so straight away. Alcohol intake should be kept to a minimum.
Another one of the common diseases in old age is heart disease. This can include heart attacks, narrowing of the heart arteries leading to chest pains (called angina) or weakening of the heart muscle called heart failure. Whatever the condition may be, once heart disease sets in, individuals will find it a lot more difficult to perform exercise and regular activities.
Associated with heart disease are risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and a family history of heart disease. Smoking is also recognised as a strong risk factor. As these risk factors have been prevalent for a number of years, it is almost inevitable that a large proportion of the elderly individuals develop some form of heart disease. This is usually narrowing of the arteries leading on to heart attacks or chest pain.
Those who have had valves problems for a number of years may notice that this reaches a stage where surgery needs to be performed. Age-related valve disease is also common with calcium deposition occurring on the valve leaflets. This can make it difficult for the valves to open and close leading to them becoming quite narrowed. A narrowed valve does not allow blood to pass through it and this can in turn lead to a number of symptoms. The symptoms range from simple chest pains to breathing difficulty, dizziness and even collapse with loss of consciousness. Narrowed valve such as the aortic valve require surgical replacement.
Memory Loss and Alzheimer’s Disease:
One of the most common age associated diseases is memory loss. What begins with short-term memory loss (such as forgetting where the keys are or to do a simple day-to-day task) can rapidly turn into long-term memory loss and loss of the ability to look after oneself. Alzheimer’s disease is a dreaded condition that affects millions of elderly individuals across the globe. It can significantly impact quality of life and can make a person completely dependent on others around them for activities of daily living (such as brushing of teeth, using the toilet and washing and feeding themselves).
Reaching a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is always challenging. Some degree of memory loss is always expected as we get older, and is called senile dementia. But when the memory loss begins to affect daily living, that is when it is considered to be more severe. While there is plenty of research being conducted in the field of memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, there still isn’t a cure for the problem.
The best way to prevent memory loss as we get older is to stay physically and mentally active. Staying at work (delay retirement), reading books, travelling, socialising and enjoying a healthy balanced diet along with regular exercise are proven ways to keep the memory sharp and to prevent memory loss.
Related Read: Alzheimer’s Disease Infographic
Ageing is a common coexisting problem with Parkinson’s disease – a condition where a person begins to experience tremors in the hand at rest, slowness in movement and a blank, expressionless face. The condition is a progressive one, and treatments only help at slowing down this progression and treating the symptoms. So far, there is no cure for this problem.
It is not very clear how ageing leads to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. It is believed that the normal toxic proteins that are generated in the body as a result of various processes attack vulnerable older nerve fiber cells called neurons.
A fall can be quite a devastating problem as we get older. Not only does it affect the individual’s confidence and getting back on their feet, it also can lead to fractures and disability. With every increasing year of age, the risk for falls increases as well.
Clinically, a fall is defined as “inadvertently coming to rest on the ground, floor, or other lower level, excluding intentional change in position to rest”. Falls are responsible for up to 30% of injuries of elderly people to hospital.
According to the CDC, more than 2.5 million people seek medical attention for falls every year in hospitals. In India, it appears to be quite a common problem as well. Generally, the falls rarely occur at home in younger people, and seem to be in an environment where the person is not familiar with the surroundings. That being said, as the individual gets older, falls and to be more common within the home environment itself.
Preventing falls is extremely important when it comes to managing elderly patients. This is because a simple fall can become a long-term problem and can make a patient bed bound. Up to 50% of falls lead to injury related hospitalisation.
This long-term poor prognosis is worse in older adults. Once they become bed bound, they get prone to chest infections and bed sores which can only worsen their health.
If an individual who is elderly has fallen, it is important to undergo a full assessment to determine whether they are safe to walk in their home environment and outside. A physiotherapy assessment may be appropriate to see if they require any walking aids such as a walking stick or a zimmer frame. These are now readily available in hospitals and in medical stores.
Many older individuals find it quite embarrassing to carry a stick as they feel that they would have lost their independence once they begin to use it. Fortunately, this is far from the truth and one should consider their walking aid is their best friend. This is because the problems that can be encountered after a fall are more than a simple trouble of carrying a walking stick when walking.
Osteoporosis is also called brittle bone disease. It is a clinical condition where the bones of the body become thin due to the loss of their natural structural integrity. It starts off as patients get older is just mild thinning of the bones and this can worsen with increasing age. As one of the common age-related diseases, it has to be tackled in a very aggressive manner once a diagnosis has been made.
Up until menopause, women are protected by oestrogen that is released from the ovaries. Oestrogen keeps the bones strong and healthy. However, once menopause is complete, the lack of oestrogen means the bones become vulnerable due to loss of calcium. Vitamin D deficiency is an extremely common problem in India and across the globe. Vitamin D is important to bind to calcium and allow it to enter the bone. Low vitamin D levels combined with thinning of the bone from osteoporosis increases its risk of breaking on minor impact.
As I have discussed previously regarding falls, osteoporosis increases the risk of bone fractures (particularly that of the spine) after falls. Many individuals, especially women, have broken their hips and the spinal column from a minor fall due to the presence of underlying osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis can be confidently diagnosed through a test called a bone mineral density test. This is simple to perform and provides a result that will help diagnose how thin the bones are. Depending on whether or not osteoporosis is present, treatment with calcium supplements, vitamin D supplements and bone strengthening agents may be prescribed.
Those who have osteoporosis must take extra care when moving around. This should avoid any sort of contact sports. Regular exercise such as walking, yoga, swimming, cycling and other exercises can help strengthen the joints and the bones and prevent fractures.
This is another common age-related problem. Depression relates to low mood and the loss of enthusiasm in performing activities that were previously rather enjoyable. Most of the times, depression is related to the fact that a lot of the family members have moved on (such as children moving abroad, the passing of a spouse etc.) and the feeling of being left alone.
The clinical symptoms of depression that are encountered in older age groups may not be typically what is described in literature. This is why depression in elderly individuals is sometimes called subsyndromal depression. Only minor symptoms such as lack of interest in family activities, no interest in hobbies, constantly sleeping and loss of appetite are evident.
The treatment of depression in elderly individuals does not always require the prescription of medicines. Just talking to a psychologist can sometimes help. Psychotherapy is extremely useful in managing age-related depression though small number of individuals may require the prescription of medicines. Socialising with family members and keeping yourself mentally active through your hobbies or reading can also prevent depression. Taking up volunteer work is also useful.
The common flu is one of the most common diseases in old age adults. The sniffles, cough, runny nose, blocked nose, headache, breathing difficulty and the constant bringing up of phlegm are all symptoms of the flu. The fever generally tends to be quite high and is associated with body pains, generalised fatigue and sometimes even joint pains.
While swine flu has been widely publicised through various reports in the press, the common flu itself can be quite fatal if not treated in the right manner. In the Western world, the government sponsors the administration of flu vaccine once a year to individuals who are old and who have low immunity.
The problem with the common flu is that it can further lower immunity and can make an individual prone to developing a nasty infection such as pneumonia. The good news is that it can be easily prevented by administering the flu vaccine once a year. Talk to your doctor about when you should be taking the vaccine and whether you are suitable for its administration.
We can try all you want in younger years to stay slim and fit but as we get older, exercise becomes a lot harder to perform. Many of us limit ourselves to simple exercises such as walking rather than more vigorous exercises such as long distance running or competitive cycling and swimming.
As we get older, one common problem faced is weight gain. This tends to be more common in women than in men in India. Women tend to put on weight throughout the body while men tend to put on weight around the belly. The increase in body weight can place a great deal of strain on all the muscles and joints and can make daily activities quite a task. Obesity is already quite rampant in India and is associated with high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. By gaining weight, these conditions can become more prevalent due to an increased risk of them occurring.
All you can do to prevent age-related weight gain is to stay healthy by following a balanced healthy diet and performing a regular exercise.
Related Read: Home Remedies to Reduce Weight
As we get older, our teeth become older as well. The enamel begins to thin out and the support structure of the teeth within the gums begins to loosen.
Dental caries may set in and teeth begin to fall off. The quantity of saliva produced in the mouth reduces and this can worsen dental caries and gum infections (such as gingivitis). Cavities become more prominent and can become quite painful as well.
Regular dental reviews are important to pick up any dental problems early so that treatment can be initiated sooner rather than later. Some teeth naturally fall off and patients inevitably need dentures.
This article would not be complete if I did not mention cataracts. Eye cataract refers to a thickening of the lens of the eye making it difficult to see clearly. The lens of the eye is essential to focus light onto the sensitive part of the eye called the retina.
Visual problems that accompany cataracts can affect quality of life greatly. It increases the risk of falls and accidents due to visual impairment.
Patients themselves identify the problem early and seek medical attention. If a cataract has progressed significantly, a new lens may need to be implanted by an ophthalmologist. This is a simple and straightforward surgery and needs medical clearance first due to the accompanying health problems commonly seen in older adults.
As we get older, the skin becomes thin and brittle. Blood vessels under the skin may rupture leading to easy bruisability upon minor impact. Tears in the skin can also be seen which is important to remember as minor injuries themselves can cause significant bleeding. The thinning of skin occurs due to loss of underlying fat tissue. This is a common ageing phenomenon to be expected as we get older and unfortunately there is no way of preventing this from happening.
What I have mentioned above are the common diseases in old age. There are many more problems that may occur with the health as well and a large proportion of these are inevitable. However, following a healthy lifestyle in the younger years and performing a regular exercise can prevent a large number of these problems.