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Certain conditions or disorders can develop as we age that impact our quality of life and ability to live independently. Here, we take a look at the most common health problems in elderly people—conditions always worth monitoring.
- Osteoarthritis: Sometimes called “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis is characterized by a loss of the cushioning cartilage found between the bones of our joints and can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and decreased mobility. Lifestyle changes—reducing excess body weight, regularly performing exercises that strengthen the muscles that support our joints, and changing from high-impact activities such as jogging to low-impact activities such as walking or swimming—can be helpful in managing symptoms. Additionally, pain can be controlled with acetaminophen or NSAIDs.
- Osteoporosis: The bones in our body are undergoing a constant process of change: old bone is being broken down and new bone is being created. We reach our peak bone mass in our mid-20s, and by middle age, the rate of bone loss tends to increase. This is particularly true of post-menopausal women. In osteoporosis, you either make too little new bone, lose too much old bone, or both. The end result is that the bones become weak and brittle and are prone to fracture, making osteoporosis one of the most common health problems in elderly people. Men and women who have lower bone density by the time the bone loss increases are at increased risk of osteoporosis. (A bone density scan showing a score of osteoporosis -2.5 or osteoporosis -3.0 reveals you to have this condition.)
- Other risk factors include a diet low in calcium and vitamin D, a diet high in sodium and caffeine, excess alcohol consumption, history of smoking, sedentary lifestyle, family history of osteoporosis, low body weight/small frame, female gender, history of taking medications known to cause bone loss (such as steroids or aluminum-containing antacids), and being post-menopausal. Treatment can include medications such as bisphosphonates, which slow the breakdown of bone, increasing your calcium and vitamin D consumption, strengthening and weight-bearing exercise, and taking measures to reduce your fall (and, thus, fracture) risk.
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD): AMD is the leading cause of vision loss in people over the age of 50. It is a degenerative disease of the macula, a part of the eye needed for sharp central vision. While it does not lead to complete blindness, it often results in a blurring of the center of our vision, which can affect daily activities such as reading and driving. Risk factors include a family history of AMD and Caucasian race. Treatment of AMD must be supervised by your doctor and can include a combination of vitamin and mineral supplements (vitamins C and E, zinc, copper, and beta-carotene have proven effective at certain doses) and, in severe cases, injections, photodynamic therapy, or laser surgery.
- Hearing impairment: Hearing occurs because of a complex process of events that occur between our outer, middle, inner ear and the auditory nerve that travels to our brain. As we age, changes often occur in the middle and inner ear that diminish our hearing, making impairment one of the most common health problems in elderly people. Additionally, a long history of exposure to loud noises can irreparably damage the hair cells in our inner ear that are critical to the hearing process. Treatment for age-related hearing loss can include hearing aids, telephone amplifiers, or cochlear implants.
- Age-related urinary incontinence: There are four main categories of urinary incontinence that can affect the elderly. They are typically a combination of the effect aging has on our muscles combined with the anatomic or physiologic effects of another condition:
- Urge incontinence: This is the most common cause of incontinence in the elderly and is characterized by early, forceful contractions of a muscle in the bladder wall resulting in frequent small to moderate losses of urine even when the bladder is not full. Risk factors for urge incontinence are a history of stroke, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, pelvic organ prolapsed, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Treatment includes pelvic floor muscle exercises and anti-spasmodic medications.
- Stress incontinence: This is more common in early menopausal women or younger elderly women who have had multiple vaginal childbirths. It is characterized by leakage of urine with increases in intra-abdominal pressure such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, or exercise. Pelvic floor muscle exercises, hormone therapy, and surgery are among the options for treatment.
- Overflow incontinence: This is characterized by a diminished urinary stream and the sensation of incomplete voiding and can result because of outlet obstruction (as in BPH or severe pelvic organ prolapse) or a dysfunction in bladder contractility (as in diabetic neuropathy or spinal cord nerve compression syndromes). Treatment depends on the underlying cause but can include surgery or medications.
- Functional incontinence: This is associated with cognitive impairment or loss of mobility that impairs an individual from accessing a restroom. Use of disposable protective undergarments and planned, assisted bathroom visits can be helpful management options.
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- Skin cancers: These are commonly the result of sun exposure. It is important to see your dermatologist regularly so that he or she can check for skin cancers.
- Age spots: These are flat tan or brown spots that usually develop in areas that have been exposed to sun. If they are true age spots they are harmless, but your healthcare provider should inspect any irregular spot.
- Bed sores/pressure ulcers: These are lesions that typically develop because of increased pressure on certain areas of the body from remaining in the same position for prolonged periods of time. They usually develop in people with decreased mobility or in people with diabetes who have impaired circulation and immunity. Management involves frequent position changes to alleviate the pressure on the sores and good skin hygiene.
Originally published in May 2016 and updated.