Elderly Diseases: The Big 12

Too many types of disease afflict humans, but preventative measures and screenings can catch them early. Here are the so-called "Big 12" elderly diseases.

Elderly couple

As we age, our bodies become more susceptible to various aliments; the so-called "Big 12" are discussed here.

For both the youthful and the elderly, diseases can be a reality, and they require attention. Many different diseases can affect the human body, but certain ones rank among the most common causes of major illness in older adults. Some of these elderly diseases affect both men and women and others are gender-specific. Here’s a closer look at the “Big 12.”

Men and Women

  • Cardiovascular disease: Cardiovascular disease is a term primarily used to refer to the effects of atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaques in our arteries. These plaques can build up in the arteries of the heart, creating coronary artery disease (the cause of heart attacks), in the arteries of the brain (which can cause stroke by blocking blood flow, called ischemic stroke), and in the arteries of the feet and legs, causing peripheral artery disease. Sometimes, people use the term cardiovascular disease to refer to other conditions affecting the heart such as heart failure (when the heart cannot pump blood to the body efficiently), arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), and heart valve problems (when the valves of the heart don’t work properly to keep the blood flowing in the right direction
  • Stroke: Ischemic stroke, the most common form of stroke, occurs when the flood of blood in a vessel in the brain is blocked by an atherosclerotic plaque or blood clot. Hemorrhagic stroke occurs when the wall of a blood vessel in the brain weakens and bursts, causing bleeding into the brain. This is usually the result of a long history of high blood pressure.
  • Lung cancer: Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women. The biggest risk factors for developing lung cancer are a history of smoking or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke; however, some lung cancers occur in people who have never smoked.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is a disease in which chronic inflammation in the lungs obstructs airflow, resulting in progressive breathlessness. There are a number of different types of COPD, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and non-reversible asthma.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease (AD): Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It is a progressive, degenerative disease in which, for mostly unexplained reasons, the build-up of beta-amyloid plaques and the tangling of tau proteins in the brain lead to brain cell death. It is thought that interplay of genetics, environment, and lifestyle is behind the cause of AD, one of the most worrisome of elderly diseases. (See also “What Causes Alzheimer’s.”)
  • Diabetes: Diabetes is a disease characterized by elevated blood sugar (glucose) levels. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce enough of the hormone insulin that allows our cells to take glucose up from the blood stream. This form of diabetes is more commonly diagnosed in younger people. Type 2 diabetes is characterized by the cells of the body being resistant to the effect of insulin. The body will initially try to compensate by producing more insulin, but will ultimately not be able to do so. This type of diabetes is more commonly diagnosed in adults.
  • Colorectal cancer: Cancer of the colon or rectum is the second leading cause of cancer death affecting men and women in the United States. This cancer begins in the form of polyps that grow in the large intestine and become cancerous over time.
  • Influenza and pneumonia: Infection of the lungs caused by influenza or bacteria is a major cause of death among people over the age of 65. This is in part because as we age, we are sometimes not able to clear the secretions from our lungs as well, allowing for bacterial growth and decreased oxygen exchange. Our immune systems tend to be weaker as we age, making influenza and pneumonia more of a risk among elderly diseases. The odds of having a co-morbid condition that impairs our ability to fight infection (such as diabetes) increase.
  • Chronic kidney disease: Chronic kidney disease is the gradual loss of kidney function. This can ultimately result in the kidneys losing the ability to filter waste from the blood into urine, leading to dangerous build-up of fluids, electrolytes, and protein in the blood.


  • Prostate cancer: Cancer of the prostate gland is one of the most common cancers among men. It is often diagnosed after a man begins experiencing symptoms such as trouble urinating, erectile dysfunction, blood in the semen, or pelvic pain. Doctors can screen for prostate cancer by physical examination and with blood tests such as the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test.


  • Breast cancer: Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women after lung cancer. There are different types of breast cancer, affecting different parts of the breast.
  • Ovarian cancer: Ovarian cancer is the most common cause of female reproductive system cancer deaths. Scientists don’t know what exactly causes ovarian cancer, but they have identified risk factors: age over 50, history of fertility treatments, smoking, estrogen hormone replacement therapy, family history, and possessing the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes.

Your healthcare provider will screen you for obvious signs and symptoms of these diseases at your annual check-up. If you ever suspect you’re suffering from one of these diseases, you should see your healthcare provider immediately.

Originally published February 2016 and updated.

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Helen Boehm Johnson, MD

Helen Boehm Johnson, MD, is a medical writer who brings the experience of a residency-trained physician to her writing. She has written Massachusetts General Hospital’s Combating Memory Loss report (2019, 2020, … Read More

View all posts by Helen Boehm Johnson, MD

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