Five Things We Think Are "Just a Part of Growing Older"—But May Not Be

Some changes—like needing reading glasses—go with the territory of reaching a certain age. But some aches, pains and "senior moments" actually stem from treatable conditions. Seniors shouldn't suffer in silence when these troublesome symptoms strike.


Until fairly recently, the assumption was that aging equaled a steady, rather predictable, decline in our physical and mental abilities. People who experienced pain, joint stiffness, loss of appetite, mental fog or dimming vision were likely to chalk it up to "just a part of growing older."

It's true that with age, we're more likely to develop certain health conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, osteoporosis or diabetes. But today, geriatricians emphasize that many changes people assume are part of natural aging are actually health conditions that can be treated—and in some cases, even halted or reversed. Yet many of us still accept these changes as part of "normal aging."

Here are five things that should send you not to your rocking chair, but to your doctor.

1. Memory loss—Most of us will notice certain changes in our memory as we grow older. We might work a little harder to recall a word or a person's name. We might search the whole house looking for our reading glasses, only to realize they're on our head. Experts tell us those changes are normal, due in part to our brains containing so much information that it takes a little longer to access it. These "senior moments" can cause us to worry that we are developing Alzheimer's disease. And while it's certainly true that the risk of Alzheimer's and other dementia increases with age, it's also important to know that some memory problems stem from treatable causes. Common culprits include alcohol abuse, metabolic disorders, urinary tract infections, sleep problems, vitamin deficiencies, depression, chronic pain, and delirium resulting from hospitalization. Medication side effects also can cause memory problems, so have your doctor or pharmacist review all prescription and over-the-counter medications you take.

2. Vision problems—As we grow older, some vision changes are very common—for example, difficulty focusing close up. Many of us will develop sight-robbing conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic eye disease. But with regular eye exams, certain types of vision loss can be prevented and even reversed. Glaucoma can be treated before serious damage is done. Some damage from macular degeneration can be prevented. Most notably, today cataract surgery is restoring the sight of many seniors—even leaving some with better vision than they had when they were young! 

3. Tooth loss—Poor oral health is linked to poor nutrition, social isolation, heart disease and even dementia. Although the National Institutes of Health reports that 25 percent of people older than 75 have lost all their teeth, modern dentistry is helping many seniors keep their natural teeth longer. Regular dental care can treat dry mouth, gum disease and plain old wear and tear, helping seniors avoid tooth loss. But dental care, especially restorative care such as bridges, crowns and implants, is costly. Geriatricians warn that the top impediment to good oral health may be the cost of dental treatment. 

4. Depression—Depression strikes people of every age, but seniors are at highest risk. Sometimes a change in life circumstances triggers depression—grief and loneliness resulting from the death of a spouse, health challenges and a loss of independence, or chronic pain. Certain health conditions raise the risk—and depression, in turn, can worsen those conditions. Seniors take a number of medications that alone or in combination can worsen depression. Alcohol abuse, poor nutrition and poor-quality sleep could also be part of the problem. Seniors who are experiencing a persistent mood of sadness and loss of interest in things they once loved should be evaluated by a healthcare professional. Depression is treatable with counseling, medication, managing underlying health conditions, and lifestyle changes such as exercise and increased social connection.

5. Weakness—It's true that we lose muscle as we grow older. Experts estimate that we lose more than 10 percent of our muscle strength every decade beyond the age of 50. How well we will fare in this department is partly a matter of genes—but to a large extent, it's also a matter of "use it or lose it." A good exercise program that includes aerobic and strength-training activities, combined with adequate nutrition, helps seniors avoid sarcopenia, defined by the National Institute on Aging as "a loss of muscle mass often associated with weakness, which is a commonly recognized cause of disability in older people." Exercise promotes independence, reduces our risk of falling, and staves off the too-common cycle in which a senior who feels tired spends more time sitting, thereby creating greater fatigue. Ask the doctor about a "prescription" for an exercise program that's right for you, taking into account any health conditions such as heart failure or arthritis. Almost everyone can benefit from increased physical activity—that's why exercise is often called the real Fountain of Youth.

Though aging brings certain predictable changes, everyone ages in their own way. It's important not to judge yourself by the standards of others—for example, those models in commercials for senior living communities who often look like Olympic athletes who dyed their hair gray. On the other hand, it's important not to assume that nothing can be done to help you overcome common—but not always inevitable—ailments that age can bring.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about physical and mental changes that are troubling to you—especially if these changes appear suddenly.

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