What are the most common healthcare challenges of aging—and how can I avoid them?

With over 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day, the challenges of aging will only become more and more common.
With over 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day, the challenges of aging will only become more and more common.

Are you over 65 or have a loved one who is? You’re in good company. With over 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day, our country’s population is rapidly aging. What’s more, with healthy lifestyle choices, such as being physically active and making healthy nutritional choices, women who reach age 65 have a 50/50 chance of living an additional 20 years to age 85, while a 65-year-old man has a 50/50 chance of living to age 82.

However, we know that along with those advancing years will come a growing number of challenges. Should that senior live alone, there will be even more challenges. Here are the 7 most common healthcare challenges among our aging population–and one big suggestion for avoiding them.

  1. Chronic Health Conditions

Whether it’s Osteoarthritis, Osteoporosis, Heart Disease, Cancer , Respiratory Disease or Diabetes, each figures prominently in the concerns of our aging population. According to the National Council on Aging, 92 percent of seniors have one chronic disease while 77 percent have at least two. Recognized as the public health challenge of the 21st century, chronic health conditions are the cause of 7 out of 10 deaths in America every year.

Of these, Osteoarthritis may be the number one complaint affecting nearly half of all seniors, according to deputy director of the National Institute on Aging, Marie Bernard, MD. However, it is Heart Disease, Cancer and Respiratory Disease and Diabetes (in that order) that are taking the most lives.

The good news, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, is that they don’t have to take this toll. Many of these deaths due to chronic illness are completely preventable with proper nutrition, exercise, losing excess weight, stopping smoking completely and reducing excessive alcohol consumption.

  1. Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias

While Alzheimer’s Disease is a dreaded condition of aging (a major risk factor in and of itself), it is not solely a disease of old age as it affects approximately 200,000 Americans under the age of 65. And, while it is the most common form of dementia, it is not the only form.

Vascular dementia, which can occur after a stroke is the second most common, followed by Dementia with Lewy Bodies, Parkinson’s Disease, Frontotemporal Dementia, and other forms. It is important for a neurologist to be consulted to determine exactly which form of dementia may be involved as each impact the brain and its abilities in different ways.

While cures for all are still in the research stage, research is ongoing and treatment options exist. Some forms of dementia, including Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, can sometimes actually be corrected. A television commercial from 2008 is still astounding in its depiction of one man’s recovery from this form of dementia.

  1. Depression

Hand-in-hand with isolation among seniors is depression. Affecting some 6 million Americans age 65 and older, it is all too common and all too concerning—particularly as older adults do not usually seek treatment for mental health issues.

Often occurring as a result of illness and/or disability, it impacts seniors much different than younger adults. It can last much longer. And it can have a devastating impact on their health.

Depression among seniors can increase the risk of cardiac diseases. It’s been associated with an increased risk of death following a heart attack. It reduces the ability to rehabilitate following injury or illness. Among nursing home patients, it’s been shown that depression substantially increases the likelihood of death by 59% in the first year after diagnosis.

In addition to death by natural causes, death by suicide among the elderly has reached alarming levels. Although they make up 12% of the US population, they account for 18% of all reported suicide deaths—a number which may be underreported by as much as 40%.

As a result, it is important that any concern about depression receives evaluation and treatment even if the depression is perceived to be only “mild.”

  1. Poor Dental Health

Whether it is the result of poor dental hygiene over a lifetime, letting such things just fall by the wayside as one gets older, arthritis impacting dexterity in the hands or memory issues, poor dental health is a common challenge impacting the overall health of seniors. And it’s far more than just a concern of bad breath or cavities.

In addition to dry mouth, gum disease and root decay, poor dental health among seniors has been linked to:

Recent research has also even found links to cancer. In one study of 66,000 post-menopausal women, those with periodontal disease were three times as likely to develop esophageal cancer and twice as likely to develop gallbladder cancer. What’s more, their risk for lung, skin and breast cancer also increased dramatically.

  1. Substance Abuse

Think substance abuse is relegated to younger adults? Think again. Today’s seniors were young adults some forty or fifty years ago. Compounded with age, health concerns, isolation, and depression there are only more reasons for that same substance abuse to continue (“the hardy survivor”) or even begin anew in the senior population (“the late onset group”).

In fact, a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that one in five seniors have had an alcohol or other substance abuse problem at some point in their lives.

The causes for substance abuse among seniors are many, including:

  • Retirement
  • Death of a family member of a close friend
  • Loss of income or financial stressors
  • Relocation to a nursing home or other care facility
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Family conflicts
  • Depression, memory loss or other health concerns

Compounding the issue is that substance abuse can often be underestimated, under-diagnosed and mistaken for other conditions when the older patient isn’t forthcoming about their usage. This is especially concerning for the senior population for a number of reasons:

  • Men or women over age 65 have a decreased ability to metabolize drugs or alcohol. Benzodiazepines, generously prescribed to treat anxiety pain or insomnia, are highly addictive.
  • Other prescription medications, even when important to the overall health of an individual, may have adverse reactions when mixed with alcohol.
  • Substance abuse only increases the risk of falls, leading to physical injury and a continuing downward health spiral.

If you believe you may have a problem with substance abuse or have a loved one that may be abusing alcohol or drugs, it’s important to get help immediately from a professional counselor or local treatment center.

  1. Flu and Pneumonia

Even though flu and pneumonia aren’t counted among the chronic health conditions on this list, the CDC counts them among the top eight causes of death in those over age 65. While flu can easily set a senior up for pneumonia, there are a number of other prevailing conditions that can put them at a greater risk than the general population. Among these are:

  • Increased frailty—which can directly affect the ability to clear secretions from the lungs.
  • Weakened immune systems—making it harder to fight off infections.
  • Other underlying health conditions—asthma and COPD, as well as such ailments as Diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and heart disease all contribute to risk.
  • Surgery—while the immune system may already be compromised as the body struggles to recover, anesthesia and pain medications cause patients to take shallower breaths, which causes mucus to gather in the lungs.
  • A history of smoking—although some current research indicates the risk can actually be reduced by switching to vaping.

Think just keeping away from someone who has flu or pneumonia will offer complete protection? It can certainly help as both can be contagious. However, it may surprise you to know that the main way seniors contract pneumonia it is actually from themselves.

According to Dr. William Schaffner of the National Foundation on Infectious Disease, “All of us carry bacteria in our throats and noses.” The result is that “Frail elders often can’t clear secretions from their lungs, and those secretions tend to go down into the bronchial tubes. The area fills with pus, mucus, and other liquids, preventing the lungs from functioning properly.” The result is pneumonia.

What can you do? As flu predisposes seniors to pneumonia, it’s highly recommended that all individuals over age 65 get an annual flu shot, as well as a pneumonia vaccine. This also applies to family members and caregivers who may have prolonged contact with the elderly.

  1. Falls

There’s a good reason for seniors to be afraid of falling. According to the CDC, 2.5 million people ages 65 and older visit the emergency department (ED) because of falls—more than any other age group. In fact, according to the National Council on Aging, an older adult is treated in an emergency room for a fall every 11 seconds. And one senior dies from a fall every 19 minutes.

The first fall, unfortunately, is only a precursor to more falls or even death. According to The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, “More than one-third of older adult ED fall patients had an ED revisit or died within 1 year,” making falls the leading cause of both injury deaths and emergency department visits for trauma.

What causes so many falls? Basically, all of the common challenges of aging listed above. Each by itself and in combination with any of the others makes the senior population more susceptible. That doesn’t mean that falls have to be an inevitable result of aging. Even with the above-listed condition, help is available.

Through home safety analyses, lifestyle adjustments, exercise, and fall prevention programs older adults can substantially reduce their risk of falling—ensuring they move upright and forward safely through their advancing years.

Like to avoid these health conditions for as long as possible? Remember that perception is reality.

No matter what the challenges may be or appear to be, it’s important to try to keep a positive attitude as you age. This does more than make you more pleasant to be around. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology compared the health and lifespans of subjects to their self-perception of aging. Amazingly, those who had more positive self-perceptions of aging lived, on average, seven and a half years longer than those with a less positive outlook!

Summary

As over 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day, their concerns with aging will only continue to grow, as well. However, by maintaining a positive attitude and positive habits, however, your journey along the gray mile can be much more pleasant–both for you and those who accompany you.

Tom Text

@TomJonesNBTX

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