Advances in medicine have allowed us to live longer and to do so more comfortably. It is still important, though, to understand that older adults have unique medical and health needs and face different challenges than they did when they were younger. To be able to enjoy retirement in good health is a major goal for most Americans, but that means knowing what steps to take to confront the health challenges of aging.
Older adults often need to take more medications, and that can present unique problems, from side effects to drug interactions that may be dangerous to recalls of harmful drugs or defective medical devices. As people age, making healthy lifestyle choices becomes ever more important, as does being more aware of health needs in general. When these steps are taken, seniors can enjoy life while staying healthy.
Facts about Senior Health
Senior health is an important topic, not just for older Americans, but for everyone. The population in the U.S. of people aged 65 and older is expected to more than double by 2060. The percentage of the population that is over 65 will rise from 25 to 24 percent. One reason for this is that Americans are living longer. In 1950 the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 68 and by 2013 it had risen to 79.
With an aging population, programs like Medicare are expected to increase spending significantly over the coming years. The need for assisted living and home care is also expected to rise. Older Americans face health problems that have always been there, but increasingly they are becoming more obese. Forty percent of Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 are now considered obese, which puts them at risk for serious health issues. The rate of Alzheimer’s disease is also expected to rise sharply, tripling from five million to 14 million cases between 2013 and 2050.
Leading Causes of Death
Heart disease is the number one killer of older Americans, those over the age of 64. The next most common causes of death for this age group are cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and cerebrovascular events, or strokes. Rounding out the top ten are Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza or pneumonia, unintentional injuries, kidney disease, and septicemia.
The Importance of a Healthy Lifestyle
Most older Americans will begin to experience more health issues as they age, but also changes that are a normal part of aging. It can be difficult to cope with these changes, but living a healthy lifestyle and practicing healthy habits can make them more manageable. Many of these normal changes occur with the heart. For instance, as people age the heart slows down, it sometimes grows larger, and blood vessels get stiffer.
Normal aging also causes bones to become less dense and to shrink in size, while muscles get weaker and less flexible. In the digestive system, seniors may experience more constipation while at the same time urinary incontinence may become a problem. Memory and other cognitive abilities decline with age, but it is important to distinguish normal changes from degenerative conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which are not normal. Other changes that occur with aging include issues with sexual dysfunction, less elasticity in the skin, weight gain or loss, and diminished vision and hearing.
While any of these changes can be considered normal side effects of aging, they are not easy to cope with. Developing good, healthy lifestyle habits as a senior is a great way to better cope with natural changes, while also minimizing them. No one can stop the aging process indefinitely, but it is possible to slow changes and to reduce some of the negative consequences of aging.
Healthy Lifestyle Habits for Seniors
There are some very important habits that seniors can engage in to live a happier, healthier, and more comfortable life. These include not smoking, going to the doctor for regular checkups, eating a healthy and balanced diet, staying active, both mentally and physically, maintaining social ties, and being safe and avoiding accidents. Staying active and social is especially important for aging adults. Physical activity can slow and even reduce bone and muscle loss, which in turn prevents injuries. Staying socially active prevents loneliness and associated mental health conditions.
Common Health Conditions in Aging Populations
As people age, they face unique health problems. Some of the more common health conditions seen in seniors include falls, urinary incontinence, difficulty sleeping, dementia, unhealthy weight loss, and osteoporosis. These health problems are more common in older adults, and they can either be a natural part of aging or a symptom or sign of a diagnosable condition. It is important to be aware of these common conditions and to seek medical attention for them immediately.
Loneliness and Mental Health
Mental health should be a priority for people of all age, but seniors have some unique challenges. According to statistics, about one-fifth of Americans over the age of 55 have some type of mental health condition. The most common of these are depression and other mood disorders, anxiety, and cognitive impairments. Men over the age of 85 have the highest rates of suicide than any other age group.
While people of all ages may be faced with mental health challenges, one reason that seniors may be vulnerable is loneliness or a lack of social support. As people age, they experience the deaths of more of their friends and family members. The loss of a spouse, in particular, can be a terrible blow that leads to loneliness and social isolation. Seniors may be less likely to seek help for mental health issues, either because of a lack of knowledge about symptoms or because of the attached stigma.
Assisted Living and Home Health Care
For many older Americans, some kind of assistance will eventually become necessary, another change associated with aging that is not always easy to handle. For those who care for and love seniors, it is important to help them make informed decisions about home health care, paying for an aide to come to the home, or assisted living facilities. For those with very serious medical issues, who require care around the clock, a nursing home may be necessary.
When choosing types of care it is important to consider several factors: the comfort and wishes of the senior needing care, the level of care, the cost of care and sources of funding such as health insurance or medical care, and proximity to family and friends. It is crucial that the choice of a facility or caregiver is made thoughtfully. The senior and loved ones should actively participate in interviewing, visiting, and monitoring the care received.
One unfortunate reason that it is so important to be careful about making caregiving choices for senior is the prevalence of abuse. Elder abuse is any kind of mistreatment or neglect that is perpetrated against a senior. Anyone of any age can be abused, but with an older adult there is a greater risk because the senior may be physically weak, cognitively impaired, or in some other way, unable to defend himself or communicate the abuse to someone else.
Seniors may be victims of many different types of abuse including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Neglect, lack of care, and abandonment may also be considered abuse. A special type of abuse that an older person may be particularly susceptible to is financial abuse. A senior may turn over finances to someone else when they can no longer make the right decisions about money. If that person misuses the money, it is considered abuse.
Collected statistics show that one in ten people over the age of 60 have experienced some form of abuse, but the real numbers are thought to be much higher. Experts believe that not all cases are reported. It is so important that loved ones look for signs of abuse, such as missing money, unexplained injuries, difficulty sleeping, or any changes in behavior that seem troubling. Elder abuse is not a problem that will stop without intervention.
Dangerous Drugs and Drug Interactions
Seniors take more medications than most young people, which means they are at a greater risk for both dangerous side effects and interactions between different drugs. It is important that seniors, or their caregivers, are aware of the risks of various medications. It is also important to communicate with doctors regarding medications being used at any given time, including those that are over the counter or herbal supplements.
In addition to side effects caused by drugs and medical devices, seniors may be at risk of being harmed by drugs that have been recalled, that are under investigation for side effects that are too risky, or from defective medical devices. For example, type 2 diabetes is a common medical problem in the elderly and there are several drugs used to treat this condition that can cause serious complications. Drugs like Actos, Byetta, and Avandia may increase the risk of pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer, vision problems, bladder cancer, and heart failure.
Modern blood thinners are also risky and commonly used in seniors to prevent blood clots after surgery or to prevent heart attacks, pulmonary embolism, and stroke. Drugs like Xarelto and Pradaxa have been the subject of lawsuits because some people have died from excessive bleeding and the parent companies may not have provided adequate warning about this risk.
Seniors are also more likely than younger patients to need certain medical devices, which can cause problems. Knee and hip systems, for example, are often used when pain and mobility in these joints have become serious issues. Many of these artificial joints have been recalled or have been the subject of lawsuits over high failure rates, pain, revision surgeries, and other issues.
Aging is never easy, but by being informed and knowing how to practice good health habits, older adults can mitigate the unpleasant consequences of getting older. It is important to understand the unique health concerns of an aging population, to be aware of mental health issues and abuse, to know about dangerous drugs, and for loved ones to intervene to help their aging family members.