Chronic Conditions 101: Basics about illness and aging

Aging and Chronic Illness: A quick look at common conditions

“An important part of successfully managing a chronic illness is to be as informed as possible about your or your loved one’s medical condition,” notes retired ER doctor Ben Hippen, of Decorah, IA.

We assemble this basic information on common chronic health conditions to help you and your family members know more.

Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. Cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia cause confusion, poor judgment, social challenges and decreased perception. People with cognitive conditions often have bad balance and lower strength, which can make them more likely to fall. The Alzheimer’s Foundation estimates that 15 to 20% of people over 65 have mild cognitive impairment, and that 5.5 million people of that age live with Alzheimer’s.  

Cancer in Older Adults. More than 20% of women and almost 30% of men age 65 and up live with cancer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. Many forms of the disease are treatable with early intervention, so follow your primary care provider’s recommendations for screenings – especially for breast, colorectal and skin cancers. According to Cheryl Dye, director of the Clemson University Institute for Engaged Aging, cancer risk can be reduced by: avoiding tobacco and alcohol, maintaining a healthy diet and weight, protecting skin from UV rays, and exercising regularly. Living with cancer? “In addition to adhering to the medical regimen recommended by your healthcare team, try to live each day as normally as possible,” she counsels. “It’s helpful to have a daily routine, incorporate fun and humor, and be physically active. Research shows that physical activities such as swimming, walking, yoga and biking can help people feel strong by keeping muscles toned, managing stress, decreasing fatigue and speeding healing.”

Cardiac Disease. Heart disease is the number-one cause of death for women and men, according to the CDC. Improve cardiac wellness by eating well, exercising, quitting smoking and seeing your doctor regularly. And since rapid response is critical, know the symptoms. Signs of a heart attack may include tightness in the chest; pain in the jaw, arm, back or stomach; shortness of breath; sweating; lightheadedness; and even nausea. Stroke symptoms can include facial droop, arm weakness, and slurred or strange-sounding speech. If any of these symptoms occurs, call 9-1-1. See how heart disease can increase your risk of falling.

Dehydration and Malnutrition. Drinking too little water and eating poorly can make us tire easily, experience sensory impairment, feel lightheaded and be at a higher risk of falling. Talk to your primary care provider about how to maintain good nutritional and hydration status — some conditions and medications require more or less food and fluid intake than standard recommendations. “The risk of dehydration increases for many older adults because of a reduced sense of thirst,” Dye says. Symptoms include cramping, dark urine, dry mouth and dry crying. As we age, we “may have increased risk of malnourishment because of lack of appetite due to medications, lack of interest in eating from not having someone to dine with, or inability to purchase food because of lack of transportation or of financial ability.” Spot malnutrition by looking for unplanned weight loss, difficulty staying warm, and diarrhea.

Depression and Aging. As many as 1 in 5 older Americans has experienced depression, according to the American Psychological Association. Causes range from side effects of medications to profound feelings of loss, isolation and hopelessness. If these feelings persist beyond two weeks, reach out to a doctor. Treatment options include working with a counselor, taking medication, and being more physically active and socially engaged. Ignoring depression impacts physical health, too, because it reduces immunity, activity and healthy eating.

Diabetes and Obesity. Beyond being tough on our joints, obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, cancer and diabetes – a condition that one-quarter of people over 65 live with. It also “makes insulin resistance worse,” notes Marian Schuda, medical director of the OhioHealth John J. Gerlach Center for Senior Health in Columbus. “Even modest weight loss – 7 to 10% of total body mass – can improve insulin action.” Diabetes symptoms may seem like dehydration or malnutrition: extreme hunger or thirst, fatigue and blurred vision. Correct diagnosis, which is possible with a blood test, and treatment are important because diabetes can lead to serious issues like nerve, kidney and vision damage.

Immunity, Pneumonia and the Flu. The immune system can weaken with age, making it more likely people over 55 will catch the flu or develop pneumonia – and have a harder time recovering quickly. Enhance immune function by managing illnesses such as diabetes and arthritis, getting at least seven hours of good-quality sleep a night, reducing stress, exercising regularly, eating a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit, and maintaining a healthy weight. It’s also key to stay current with vaccinations for the flu, pneumonia, shingles and tetanus. These steps can dramatically increase our ability to remain healthy, limit complications and stay alive. (The CDC estimates that more than three-quarters of annual deaths from the flu occur in citizens over 65.)

Oral Health Problems. Decay leads to tooth loss and pain. It also encourages infections that can develop into serious conditions like abscess, cellulitis or periodontal disease. Poor oral health can even effect our hearts. “Bacteria from dental and periodontal neglect can infect the blood stream and cause infection of artificial joints and heart valves,” notes Joel Wagoner, a dentist in Chapel Hill, NC. Regular preventive visits are the best way to stay ahead of serious trouble. “The average is twice a year, but that decision is best made on an individual basis by your dental health professional.”

Respiratory Diseases. Respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), make it hard to breathe and increase our susceptibility to pneumonia and falls. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, rapid breathing, feeling unable to get enough air, sleepiness and confusion. Learn more about asthma, COPD and falls.

Senior Substance Abuse. Substance abuse is a frequent and serious problem. The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions estimates that 20% of people over 65 have experienced or are experiencing substance abuse or addiction. This may be because we are lonely, isolated, depressed or living with pain. Many controlled substances can interact badly with other medications or impede drugs’ effectiveness. When abuse is suspected, reach out to a medical professional or support programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, AlAnon or Narcotics Anonymous. Find out more about mental health. Use this information to begin to understand the conditions you or your family members may develop or be living with now.

Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a healthcare condition.

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