Tips for healthy aging: Avoid common health problems in elderly adults

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If you’re 65 or older, you’re in good company. More than 1 in 6 Americans are in this age group. It’s also a time when people experience more health conditions, but it’s never too late to prioritize your health and well-being. Embracing healthy lifestyle habits as you age can help prevent and manage common health problems in elderly adults, and improve quality of life.

Keep reading to discover more about the prevalent health conditions associated with aging and the steps you, or someone you care about, can take to stay as independent and healthy as possible.

How does aging affect health?

Nearly every part of the body is affected by the aging process. According to the National Council on Aging, 95% of people aged 65 and over have at least one chronic medical condition, and 80% have two or more chronic conditions.

The most common health problems in elderly adults affect the following areas:

● Brain. Your brain changes throughout life. As you age, some areas of the brain may shrink, blood flow may decrease, and nerve cells may not communicate as effectively. It’s normal to experience changes in the ability to remember, multitask, pay attention, and learn new information. It may take a little longer to complete certain tasks, but most older adults still have the ability to think clearly and take on new challenges.

However, memory loss that interferes with your daily life can be a sign of something more serious, such as depression, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. If you find yourself losing things often, forgetting important events, getting confused about familiar people and places, or not taking care of yourself and your home, it might be time to talk with your healthcare provider.

● Ears. The ears have two primary functions: hearing and maintaining balance. Loud noises, health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, certain medications, and genetic factors can cause ear damage that worsens over the years. As a result about 1 in 3 older adults has hearing loss, which can make it difficult to understand and communicate with others. Damage inside the ear can also cause dizziness and other balance problems.

● Eyes. Muscles surrounding the eyes and the delicate structures inside become weaker as you age. Things may look less sharp and colors less vibrant. It can be more difficult to focus on nearby objects and harder to adjust to changes in lighting. Some eye changes are not normal and can lead to vision loss or even blindness. Visual disorders include:

  • Cataracts — cloudy eye lens
  • Glaucoma — increased pressure inside the eye
  • Macular degeneration — loss of central vision
  • Retinopathy — damage to light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye

● Digestion. Changes in the digestive system can increase the risk of health conditions such as:

  • Constipation
  • Dysphagia — difficulty swallowing
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Intestinal polyps
  • Ulcers

● Heart. As you get older, your cardiovascular system must work harder than it did when you were younger. Blood vessels may grow thinner, weaker, and less elastic. The heart muscle itself, and the valves inside that control blood flow, can become thick and stiff. These issues can increase the risk of developing ischemic heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases.

● Lungs. As you age, the diaphragm (the wall of muscle that helps lungs function) can become weak, elastic, less firm, or more stiff. These issues can make it harder to breathe in enough oxygen or breathe out the waste product carbon dioxide. In the short term, these changes can cause symptoms such as fatigue and shortness of breath and increase risk of lung infections and sleep apnea.

● Metabolism. Inactivity, weight gain, and normal changes in metabolism increase the risk of diabetes in older adults. According to the American Diabetes Association, more than 29% of Americans 65 years and older have diabetes. Older adults are at greater risk of diabetes-related complications, including vision problems, kidney failure, and heart disease.

● Muscles, bones and joints. As you age, bones become more brittle, muscles lose strength, and joints become less stable and flexible. These changes can reduce mobility, putting you at risk of falling and developing a variety of orthopedic issues such as chronic back and neck pain, osteoporosis, and arthritis.

● Urinary system. Age-related changes in the kidneys and bladder can affect how well they remove wastes and excess fluid from the body. This decline in function can lead to bladder control issues, repeated urinary tract infections, and chronic kidney disease.

What you can do

Healthy lifestyle habits offer multiple health benefits for older adults. Here are some of the ways you can help boost energy levels, preserve strength, improve cardiovascular fitness, maintain your cognitive abilities, and promote emotional well-being as you age.

● Keep active. Exercise is essential to good health. Regular physical activity can help you:

  • Control blood pressure
  • Elevate mood
  • Improve strength and balance
  • Increase stamina
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Promote better sleep
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Reduce stress

Especially for older adults, getting a mix of four types of exercise — endurance, strength, balance and flexibility — provides the greatest benefits.

● Choose healthy foods. Eat a healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, eggs, nuts, and seeds. These foods can help prevent high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems.

● Get enough quality sleep. Many older adults have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Age-related health conditions, brain changes, and lifestyle habits can disrupt sleep patterns. Not getting enough restful sleep is linked to many health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Healthy bedtime habits include creating a regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine.

● Stay connected. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with a variety of health problems in older adults, including depression, heart disease, and cognitive decline. Regular contact with friends, loved ones, and people in your community can enhance mental and physical health. Volunteering is also a good way to connect with others and improve your mood.

● Get regular checkups. An annual wellness exam provides a general picture of your current health status and helps identify your risk factors for many health conditions. Vaccinations designed specifically for older adults help prevent many medical conditions, including flu, pneumonia, and shingles. Screening tests help spot problems such as cognitive impairment, depression, heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers early, when treatment is most effective. Your healthcare provider can help you decide on a schedule that’s right for you.

Ready to schedule your annual checkup? Find a primary care provider at Reid Health. Our PACE Center also offers seniors with health conditions help with maintaining independence.

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