When people over 60 feel chronic pain, have frequent falls, experience fatigue, or struggle with forgetfulness, it’s common to dismiss their issues as a “normal part of aging.” A lack of response to seniors’ complaints could lead to more health problems and even shorten their life expectancy.
Unfortunately, older adults’ health issues routinely fall through the cracks of usual medical care, according to Leslie Kernisan, a board-certified doctor in internal medicine and geriatrics and a clinical instructor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.
In her health blog for seniors and family caregivers, Dr. Kernisan wrote that seniors can have certain age-related health problems “for years without anyone taking effective action.” So, it’s important to address these issues so seniors can live healthier lives.
The following are seven commonly neglected problems that Dr. Kernisan says should be addressed for healthier aging:
One of the top fears older adults have is a fear of falling. In many cases, problems with balance, lack of strength, side effects of medication, and tripping over items in the house can cause falls. Research shows that older adults will even restrict their activities because of their fear of falling.
A primary reason for the fear is the life-changing consequences that can result from a fall, such as broken bones, broken hips, and head injuries. These injuries usually require hospitalization, followed by weeks of rehabilitation.
The good news is that regular fall-prevention exercises, such as sit-to-stand and balancing exercises, can help build strength and stability in older adults.
2. Memory Concerns
When older adults forget someone’s name, or where they put their keys, or cannot remember facts that they once knew very well, it’s common for them to panic and believe they have some form of dementia. Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging, but this does not necessarily mean that older adults have mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease.
Seniors who have concerns about their memory should ask their doctors about having a memory evaluation assessment. According to Dr. Kernisan, some seniors are reluctant to have their memory evaluated for fear of getting a diagnosis of dementia, or they may believe that “nothing can be done.” An evaluation, however, can help medical professionals find ways to improve a patient’s brain function by identifying and treating an underlying health problem or by recommending activities that promote brain health.
Depression is a common problem among older adults and one that is easily missed. According to the National Institute on Aging, people who have experienced depression at a younger age may be more likely to have depression as an older adult.
According to Dr. Kernisan, a common sign of depression in seniors is “anhedonia,” which is the inability to enjoy activities that once brought pleasure. It’s important to identify and treat depression as soon as possible since mood disorders can affect one’s quality of life. Studies have found that medication and psychotherapy are effective in treating mild to moderate depression. But, Dr. Kernisan recommends avoiding the antidepressant medication Paxil (paroxetine), because it is “anticholinergic,” which means it dampens brain function.
4. Urinary Incontinence
Urinary incontinence (UI), the loss of bladder control, is a common—and embarrassing—problem among older adults. UI has different causes, such as damage or injury to nerves that control the bladder, an enlarged prostate gland in men, or weak pelvic muscles in women.
Just as there are various causes of UI, there are different types of UI. Effective treatment will depend on accurately identifying the type and cause of UI. According to Dr. Kernisan, most medications used to treat bladder spasms are strongly anticholinergic and, therefore, dangerous for brain function. To help your doctor evaluate UI, Dr. Kernisan recommends keeping a record of your bladder activity for three days before visiting your doctor.
To help manage UI leaks, many older adults wear incontinence pads. However, Dr. Kernisan said all incontinence pads do not appear equal and admitted that she is one of the few doctors “who doesn’t know which is best.”
Pain is one of the most common complaints of older adults and a problem that decreases the quality of life. Pain can be a sign of a new health problem or an existing problem that has not been properly managed. According to Dr. Kernisan, research shows that about 50 percent of adults 65 years old and older suffer from annoying pain every month in multiple parts of the body.
Psychotherapy, exercise, physical therapy, and a wide range of other methods have all been shown to reduce pain. Medication may be required to manage pain, particularly for short-term relief, or used with other methods. Dr. Kernisan says to keep in mind that over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil and Motrin, can be dangerous for older adults if taken frequently or in high doses.
6. Isolation and loneliness
Many older adults are plagued with social isolation and loneliness, whether they live close to family or in a senior residential facility. Researchers have found that living alone and being socially isolated can lead to health problems as well as death. For example, a study published in 2012 followed 1,604 seniors over six years. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that nearly 23 percent of study participants who reported feelings of loneliness, feelings of social isolation, or lack of companionship passed away during this period, while 14 percent of the seniors who were socially satisfied died during the same time period.
Fortunately, one of the best remedies for isolation and loneliness is for seniors to arrange to have more social contact with others, as well as address any physical challenges that may prevent them from leaving home.
7. Polypharmacy (Taking Multiple Medications)
Prescription medications are designed to help older adults tackle health challenges. The problem comes when seniors take multiple drugs—several times a day—for different health issues. Unfortunately, taking multiple drugs carry the risk of different side effects and interactions, which makes matters worse.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports adults 65 years old and over make over 177,000 visits to emergency departments each year due to medication problems. That’s three times the number of visits as younger patients. The most common drugs that require monitoring are blood thinners, diabetes, seizure, and heart medications, the CDC says.
Besides health problems, polypharmacy, which means taking multiple medications, places a financial burden on seniors because purchasing different drugs can get expensive over time. Also, taking multiple medications on a regular basis can make it difficult to manage, especially when the drugs are taken at different times.
According to Dr. Kernisan, healthy aging isn’t just about trying to prevent problems. It’s also about correctly identifying and addressing them before they get worse and affect your independence.
“We have studied these problems in geriatrics, and most of the time, correctly evaluating and then managing these problems helps older adults and their families feel better, live better, and sometimes even live longer,” Dr. Kernisan wrote.