Getting older can bring senior health challenges. By being aware of these common chronic conditions, you can take steps to stave off disease as you age.
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
People in America today can expect to live longer than ever before. Once you make it to 65, the data suggest that you can live another 19.3 years, on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For many, then, senior living includes carefully managing chronic conditions in order to stay healthy.
Making healthy lifestyle choices, like quitting smoking and losing weight, can help you avoid senior health risks, though “you also need to be physically active and eat a healthy diet,” explains Jeanne Wei, MD, PhD, executive director of the Reynolds Institute on Aging at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. Including a geriatrician, a doctor who specializes in the health concerns of aging, on your senior healthcare team can help you learn how to live better with any chronic diseases.
Then you too can be among the 41 percent of people over 65 who say their health is very good or excellent, according to the CDC.
“Arthritis is probably the number one condition that people 65 or older contend with,” says geriatrician Marie Bernard, MD, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland. The CDC estimates that it affects 49.7 percent of all adults over 65 and can lead to pain and lower quality of life for some seniors. Although arthritis can discourage you from being active, it’s important to work with your doctor to develop a personalized activity plan that, along with other treatment, can help maintain senior health.
2. Heart Disease
According to the CDC, heart disease remains the leading killer of adults over age 65, accounting for 489,722 deaths in 2014. As a chronic condition, heart disease affects 37 percent of men and 26 percent of women 65 and older, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. As people age, they’re increasingly living with risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, that increase the chances of having a stroke or developing heart disease. Dr. Bernard’s advice for addressing this senior health risk not only helps with heart disease but can improve senior health across the board: “Exercise, eat well, get a good night’s rest. Eating well means eating in a fashion that will allow you to keep a healthy weight with a well-balanced and healthy diet.”
Cancer is the second leading cause of death among people over age 65, with 413,885 deaths in 2014, according to the CDC. The CDC also reports that 28 percent of men and 21 percent of women over age 65 are living with cancer. If caught early through screenings, such as mammograms, colonoscopies, and skin checks, many types of cancer are treatable. And though you’re not always able to prevent cancer, you can improve your quality of life as a senior living with cancer, including during treatment, by working with your medical team and maintaining their healthy senior living recommendations.
4. Respiratory Diseases
Chronic lower respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are the third most common cause of death among people 65 and older, with 124,693 deaths in 2014, according to the CDC. Among people 65 and older, about 10 percent of men and 13 percent of women are living with asthma, and 10 percent of men and 11 percent of women are living with chronic bronchitis or emphysema, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Although having a chronic respiratory disease increases senior health risks, making you more vulnerable to pneumonia and other infections, getting lung function tests and taking the correct medication, or using oxygen as instructed, will go a long way toward preserving senior health and your quality of life.
5. Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease accounted for 92,604 deaths of people over age 65 in 2014, according to the CDC. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that one in nine people age 65 and older, which is about 11 percent, have Alzheimer’s disease, but because diagnosis is challenging, it’s difficult to know exactly how many people are living with this chronic condition. Still, experts acknowledge that cognitive impairment has a significant impact on senior health across the spectrum, from issues of safety and self-care to the cost burden of care, either in the home or a residential facility.
“Osteoporosis can contribute to becoming less mobile and potentially disabled should you fall and have a fracture or as the vertebral bodies collapse,” Bernard said. The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that 54 million Americans over age 50 are affected by low bone mass or osteoporosis, putting them at risk for a fracture or break that could lead to poor senior health and reduced quality of life. What’s more, they estimate that by the year 2020 that number will rise to 64.4 million.
The CDC estimates that 25 percent of people ages 65 and older are living with diabetes, a significant senior health risk. According to CDC data, diabetes caused 54,161 deaths among adults over age 65 in 2014. Diabetes can be identified and addressed early with simple blood tests for blood sugar levels. The sooner you know that you have or are at risk for diabetes, the sooner you can start making changes to control the disease and improve your long-term senior health outlook.
8. Influenza and Pneumonia
Although the flu and pneumonia aren’t chronic conditions, these infections are among the top eight causes of death in people over age 65, according to the CDC. Seniors are more vulnerable to these diseases and less able to fight them off. Senior healthcare recommendations include getting an annual flu shot, and getting the pneumonia vaccine if recommended by your doctor, to prevent these infections and their life-threatening complications.
The risk for falls requiring emergency room care increases with age. Each year, 2.5 million people ages 65 and older are treated in emergency departments because of falls, according to the CDC. That’s more than any other age group. And, one-third of people who go to the emergency room for a fall may find themselves there again within one year, according to a study published in August 2015 in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Also be aware that most falls occur in the home, where tripping hazards include area rugs and slippery bathroom floors, according to a study published in January 2013 in the Journal of Injury and Violence Research.
10. Substance Abuse
An analysis of data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions suggests that one in five people over 65 have had a substance or alcohol abuse problem at some point in their lives. Alcohol and tobacco topped the list of nonmedical substances abused by survey participants. Substance and alcohol abuse are a concern for senior health because of possible interactions with prescription medication, their impact on overall health, and the increased senior health risks, such as falls, associated with intoxication.
Obesity is an important senior health risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer — all chronic conditions that impact quality of life. As the numbers on the scale increase, so does the risk for disease. Of the adults between 65 and 74, 36.2 percent of men and 40.7 percent of women are obese — meaning that their body mass index is greater than or equal to 30 — according to the CDC. It can also be a signal that an older adult isn’t as active or mobile as he or she once was.
According to the American Psychological Association, 15 to 20 percent of Americans over 65 have experienced depression. A threat to senior health, depression can lower immunity and can compromise a person’s ability to fight infections. In addition to treatment with medication and therapy, other ways to improve senior living might be to increase physical activity — 59.4 percent of adults 65 and older don’t meet CDC recommendations for exercise— or to interact socially more — seniors report spending just 8 to 11 percent of their free time with family and friends, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics.
13. Oral Health
Healthy teeth and gums are important not just for a pretty smile and easy eating, but also for overall senior health. According to the CDC, 25 percent of adults over 65 have no natural teeth. As you age, your mouth tends to become dryer and cavities are more difficult to prevent, so proper oral health care, including regular dental checkups, should be a senior healthcare priority, Dr. Wei said.
In 2013, 45 percent of adults ages 65 and older had incomes below the poverty level, according to a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation report. This number takes into account available financial resources, liabilities such as taxes, value benefits like food stamps, out-of-pocket medical expenses, geographic variations in housing expenses, and other factors. Older women are slightly more likely than men to be living in poverty, and that gap widens in those over 80. Single older adults are also significantly more likely to live alone with fewer resources. Poverty affects senior health if you’re unable to afford doctor visits, medication for chronic conditions, and other essential senior healthcare needs.
Remember that bout of chicken pox you had as a kid? It can come back as shingles when you’re an adult. According to the National Institutes of Health, one out of three people over 60 will get shingles, and 50 percent of all Americans will experience it before they’re 80. It usually affects only one side of your body, starting out with severe pain or tingling and then developing into an itchy rash and possibly blisters. There is a vaccine available, so talk to your doctor about it.
Additional reporting by Carey Rossi