Healthy Aging: Staying Ahead of Chronic Conditions

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by Alan Kronhaus, MD, Doctors Making House Calls 

Americans are living longer than ever before. For many seniors, partnering with a primary care clinician who specializes in geriatric medicine who can identify and manage chronic conditions is key to helping them stay ahead of health risks and lead active, healthy lives. The list below (compiled in part by everydayhealth.com) outlines the 8 most common chronic health concerns for seniors. Working to manage them can help you prevent a larger medical event and enjoy a better quality of life.

1. Arthritis

“Arthritis is probably the number one condition that people 65 or older contend with,” said geriatrician Marie Bernard, MD, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging. It affects 49.7% of all adults over 65 and leads to pain and lower quality of life. It’s important to work with your doctor to develop an exercise plan that may help with arthritis symptoms. Daily exercise helps keep joints moving, lessens pain, and strengthens muscles around the joints.

2. Heart Disease

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease affects 37% of men and 26% of women and is the leading cause of death among adults over 65. As people age, their cardiac risk factors increase, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, that increases the chance of having a stroke or developing heart disease. Daily exercise, eating a well-balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting a good night’s rest, can reduce your risk for heart disease and improve overall health. Older adults should work with their physician to closely monitor for any changes to heart health.

3. Cancer

Cancer is the second leading cause of death among people over 65, and the CDC estimates 28% of men and 21% of women over 65 are living with cancer. If caught early through screenings such as mammograms, colonoscopies, and skin checks, many types of cancer are treatable. It’s not always possible to prevent cancer, but it is possible to improve quality of life as a senior with cancer by working with your medical team.

4. Respiratory Diseases

Chronic respiratory diseases, such as COPD, asthma or emphysema, are increasingly common. Respiratory disease increases other senior health risks, including vulnerability to influenza, pneumonia and other air-borne infections. Seniors with respiratory conditions should avoid smoke, chemicals like perfumes, cleaners, and aerosol sprays that can irritate airways; think nutrition to give the body the extra energy necessary for labored breathing; get regular lung function tests to monitor changes; and take medications or use oxygen as instructed.

5. Alzheimer’s Disease

The Alzheimer’s Association reports that one in nine people over 65 are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Cognitive impairment has a significant impact on senior health overall. Alzheimer’s has no current cure, but treatments for symptoms are available and can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia. A physician specially trained in geriatric medicine can prescribe medication for symptom relief, help monitor the condition long-term and make recommendations for changes in care as needed.

6. Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis thins and weakens the bones, so they become fragile and break easily. Patients with osteoporosis can become less mobile and as a result, more susceptible to falls. Patients may not know they have osteoporosis until a sudden bump or fall causes a bone to break, resulting in a trip to the hospital, surgery, or possibly a disabling condition. The good news is that osteoporosis can often be prevented and treated. Your physician can perform simple tests to determine bone health and recommend healthy lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, and treatment medications to help prevent further bone loss and reduce the risk of fractures.

7. Diabetes

Roughly 24% of men and 18% of women over 65 are living with diabetes. Complications such as hearing loss, vision problems, cognitive impairment, and mobility difficulties are especially apparent in seniors whose diabetes isn’t properly managed. Your physician can diagnose diabetes in its earliest stages with simple blood sugar level testing. The sooner you know, the sooner you can start making changes to control the disease and improve your long-term outlook. Regular exams are necessary to closely monitor any changes to avoid worsening conditions.

8. Depression

According to the American Psychological Association, over 15% of Americans over 65 have experienced depression. Depression can lower immunity and the ability to fight infections. In addition to treatment with medication and therapy, physical activity may help alleviate feelings of depression. Similarly, more social interaction with family and friends has been shown to reduce depressive thoughts.

Vann, Madeline R. “The 15 Most Common Health Concerns for Seniors.” everydayhealth.com. http://www.everydayhealth.com/news/most-common-health-concerns-seniors/ (accessed October 2015)

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