When we’re in our 30s or 40s, a bout with the flu is typically a nuisance and not much more. We usually bounce back after some bed rest and some over the counter medications, and our lives return to normal. However, as we all know, illnesses like the flu can be devastating to an older person – and that’s not the only common health problem that affects seniors disproportionately, according to this article from Consumer Reports.
“Many medical problems—such as heartburn or a fall—are easy to bounce back from when you’re a teenager or young adult,” says the article. “But as we get older, seemingly small problems are more likely to balloon into serious ones.” The Consumer Reports piece lists four common health-related concerns that might be easy to overlook in someone younger, but if you’re a senior or responsible for a senior’s care, it can be dangerous to take these and other similar health concerns too lightly. We’ll list the four health problems from Consumer Reports in a moment – but first, we wondered, what is it about older adults that makes them susceptible to health complications that don’t affect younger people?
Dangerous to Overlook Common Health Problems
This article from a website called Aging Care provided some helpful insight. “As a senior’s body changes with age, there are a few subtler symptoms to be aware of that can affect overall health and quality of life,” it said. Consider these examples:
- As we age, our reaction time tends to slow down, which not only impedes safe driving but also makes us less able to react quickly to other potentially harmful situations.
- The older we get, the thinner our skin becomes, “which can lead to tears and wounds that heal very slowly” according to Aging Care.
- Older adults tend to have “a weakened immune system, which can make fighting off viruses, bacterial infections and other diseases more difficult.”
- Seniors (especially smokers) also tend to have a diminished sense of taste and smell, “which can lead to a loss of appetite and dehydration,” both potentially dangerous.
The consequences of these normal aspects of aging are compounded by the fact that health problems among seniors seldom stand alone. “Many elders are coping with at least one health condition and some face the challenge of living with multiple health problems,” says Aging Care. This makes providing care that much more difficult and complicated.
Four Common Health Problems from Consumer Reports
Back to Consumer Reports: here are four common health problems that seniors and their loved ones should not trivialize or ignore.
- The Flu. This should come as no surprise. “The immune system often gets weaker with age, making people older than 65 more likely to catch an infectious disease and get sicker when they do,” the article warns. “Between 70 and 90 percent of flu related deaths, and 50 and 70 percent of all flu-related hospitalizations, occur among older adults.” (According to this report, 80,000 people died from the flu in the 2017-2018, the highest total in 40 years.) The prescription: get a flu shot and take all the precautions you can to stay healthy. Seek medical help immediately when symptoms appear. In the words of Consumer Reports, “Potentially dangerous flu symptoms, such as shortness of breath, pressure in the chest, sudden dizziness, confusion, vomiting, and high fever, should prompt a trip to an emergency room.”
- Heartburn. Occasional heartburn isn’t the problem so much as persistent, chronic heartburn which can damage the esophagus and lead to dangerous infection. Some of the common prescription drugs used to treat the condition are not safe for seniors. A geriatrician – a doctor trained to treat older adults – is your best bet for getting the appropriate treatment, but you should also treat the underlying cause. “Lifestyle interventions are key,” says Consumer Reports. “Losing weight, avoiding foods that cause symptoms, exercising, and not eating for a few hours before bedtime can help.”
- Mood Changes. Everyone has an “off day” now and then, or an occasional bout of the blues, but persistent mood changes can mean something more worrisome for a senior. Isolation and inactivity can trigger depression, especially as seniors adjust to changes in life circumstances. As Consumer Reports adds, “Medications (including blood pressure prescriptions, opioids, and hormone treatments) can [also] affect mood,” as can “seemingly unrelated ailments, such as hypothyroidism and vitamin deficiencies.” Frequent mood changes can also be warning signals of cognitive decline. The best advice from the article is to bring any feelings of depression or anxiety to your doctor’s attention – and as we said before, your primary care doctor should be a geriatrician.
- Trips and Falls. We’ve written about this common but often-overlooked problem in the past here on the AgingOptions blog. “As part of the natural aging process,” says Consumer Reports, “bones lose minerals, making them thinner and more brittle.” As a result, a minor fall later in life can sometimes result in a fractured hip or other broken bone, forcing an older patient into weeks of inactivity during which they are in danger from blood clots, pneumonia, and other complications. Some medications also cause dizziness, increasing the risk of falls. The prescription is straightforward: make sure the living space for a vulnerable senior is safe, review all meds for side effects, and encourage the senior in your life to get some regular exercise to build strength.
Planning for All Aspects of Your Retirement
Planning for your medical needs in retirement is extremely important – but it’s even more important to spend some time doing retirement planning that is truly comprehensive. That type of plan includes medical needs, housing choices, legal protection, financial preparation, even communication with your family. At AgingOptions we refer to that type of comprehensive, multi-faceted plan as a LifePlan, and in our experience there’s no other retirement blueprint quite like it. Why not find out for yourself? Spend a few hours with Rajiv Nagaich at an upcoming AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar – without cost or obligation. For a list of presently scheduled seminars, click here for our Live Events page where you can register online (or, if you prefer, contact us by phone).
Some of the ideas described in this article can keep you healthier, but what can truly prepare you for retirement? There’s nothing more effective than a LifePlan from AgingOptions. Age on!
(originally reported at www.consumerreports.org)