Top 8 Health Concerns for Seniors

People are living longer, with the biggest increases now occurring in the number of the oldest adults, or people ages 85 and older.

While there are many age-related chronic diseases, certain conditions can adversely affect your health and longevity and influence the quality of your later years.

The good news, says family medicine specialist Christina Zarate Kolp, MD, is that many of these conditions – if addressed early – can be minimized and/or treated.

“The sooner that you address a health concern, the better it can be managed,” she says.

Among Dr. Zarate Kolp's older patients and their families, the top eight health concerns are:

  1. Cognitive decline. Patients, along with their family members, often come in together to ask about the older person's forgetfulness, she says. “I counsel people that it's really important to detect cognitive decline early,” Dr. Zarate Kolp says. “Forgetfulness, memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer's disease can affect an older person's entire health care, especially the way he or she manages the diseases that affect many seniors, such as diabetes and heart conditions.” In addition to covering available treatment options, Dr. Zarate Kolp spends time with patients and their family discussing how to manage this condition and avoid safety risks.
  2. Overweight and obesity. These conditions are rampant throughout our society, she says, and can lead to numerous disabilities and chronic diseases. “Our idea of obesity is of someone who is morbidly obese, but we like to begin intervention sooner,” Dr. Zarate Kolp says. That intervention begins in patients who are overweight, with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, to prevent development of obesity and reduce risk factors for many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart attack, stroke and sleep apnea. A person with a BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese.
  3. Joint and bone health. Arthritis affects about half of people over 65 and causes joint inflammation, often around the fingers, knees and hips. It can cause a lot of pain, limit what you're able to do, create safety issues and affect your sleep. Sometimes the pain is so severe, people get a hip or knee joint replaced. “Depending on the severity, we'll refer the person to an orthopaedic specialist,” she says. Another related condition is osteoporosis and low bone mass, which affects senior men and women equally. People with this condition risk developing stooped or hunched posture and breaking bones, which can lead to limited mobility, isolation, depression and even death. Once a person is screened and osteoporosis detected, there are a lot of treatment options, Dr Zarate Kolp says. These include medications and/or vitamin D and calcium supplements. “We recommend that older patients make physical activity front and center in their joint and bone health self-care,” Dr. Zarate Kolp says. “Weight-bearing activities can ward off a lot of problems and improve your joint and bone health.”
  4. Cardiovascular disease. The older you get, the higher your risk of developing one or more types of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, clogged arteries and high cholesterol, which can lead to heart attacks, strokes and/or other health problems. For seniors, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death. It's important for seniors to have regular check-ups, know their blood pressure and cholesterol numbers and, if needed, take medications that control their risks, Dr. Zarate Kolp says.
  5. Respiratory diseases. “Many people in this generation smoked or were exposed to second-hand smoke,” she says. “As their immune function decreases, they are at greater risk for lung infections.” The decreased immune function is more a matter of age, and the smoke and/or exposure to smoke can sometimes leave lasting damage to the lung, which predisposes people to lung infections, she says. The fall-out is many seniors deal with respiratory diseases, such as the flu, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Two common COPD conditions are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Depending on the type of respiratory disease, vaccines can help ward off or minimize the risks. In other cases, medications can help control the symptoms.
  6. End-of-life care. Dr. Zarate Kolp is a proponent of creating an advance directive for your medical care, such as a living will and durable power of attorney for health care, and discussing your wishes with family members. “Often we see families not knowing what their older family member wants,” she says. “It's a good thing to talk over with your family and primary care provider.”
  7. Vaccines. Seniors often want to know if they really need vaccines and which ones, she says. “Vaccinations are important for seniors because they are at risk for low or diminished immune function and would benefit from extra protection against diseases,” she says. She recommends getting vaccines for the flu, pneumonia and shingles.
  8. Falls. Besides being painful, falling can threaten your quality of life and safety. Seniors are more at risk of falling because of poor vision and hearing, Dr. Zarate Kolp says. Medications can also affect balance. “When I talk to older patients, we cover the things they can do to minimize their risks, such as using a walker or cane for balance,” she says. “I also advise them to remove or secure tripping hazards, such as throw rugs, because it’s easy to trip over these, and make sure their house is well-lit so they can see where they are going.”

Christina Zarate Kolp, MD is a family medicine specialist at University Hospitals Amherst Primary Care. You can request an appointment with Dr. Zarate Kolp or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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