According to the National Council on Aging, over 80% of senior citizens (men and women ages 65 or older) have at least one diagnosed illness or disease. In addition, nearly 70% have two or more debilitating health conditions. Chances are, you may have an older family member that is trying to manage a chronic health condition, or you may have concerns about developing severe health problems as you age.
When we look at contributing factors such as age, genetics, gender, and long-time lifestyle habits, it may appear nearly impossible to avoid life-threatening illnesses and diseases when we become senior citizens. However, even when it seems that the odds are stacked against you, there are medically and scientifically proven strategies that can prevent the onset of disease, manage it effectively, and, in some cases, roll it back completely.
This article will review several of the most prevalent illnesses senior citizens experience, explain in simple terms what they are and why they are dangerous, and offer some advice for avoiding them or managing them so that quality of life is improved.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Commonly referred to as COPD, this disease impacts the lungs and respiratory system and causes shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing. If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, sticking to doctor-prescribed medications and respiratory therapy is vital. In addition, getting annual flu vaccines can help protect the person from experiencing respiratory distress if they contract a virus.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage COPD:
- Quit or avoid smoking and secondhand smoke
- Avoid harsh chemicals and fumes such as those found in solvents and cleaners
- Wear a dust mask when cleaning
- Stay active with a physical exercise routine approved by your physician.
Alzheimer’s Disease is a form of dementia that results in memory loss and the inability to solve common, everyday problems. Those with late-stage Alzheimer’s often need around-the-clock caregiving and assistance to complete routine tasks. However, recent research studies have suggested lifestyle habits may prevent or slow the onset of this debilitating disease.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage Early-Stage Alzheimer’s Disease:
- Routine exercise benefits the heart and the brain.
- Getting at least 7 hours of sleep helps maintain proper brain functioning
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet while avoiding or limiting smoking and alcohol.
- Socialize and stay connected to family and friends.
Depression can strike at any age and causes persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Those experiencing depression may be chronically tired, experience changes in their appetite, and lose interest in previously enjoyed activities. Chronic depression can often lead to self-harm and suicide.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage Depression:
- Have regular connections with family and friends
- Limit alcohol and other mood-altering substances
- Routine exercise releases “feel good” brain chemicals and can boost self-confidence
- Talk honestly with your doctor about your treatment options. Antidepressant medications or mental health counseling often help address the causes of depression.
Heart Failure and Heart Attacks
Heart failure happens when the heart cannot adequately distribute blood to the body. A heart attack is when blood flow is limited or cut off from reaching the heart. These are serious, life-threatening conditions that require immediate medical assistance. A person in the early stages of heart failure or a heart attack may feel tired, nauseous, confused, or light-headed.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage Heart Failure and Heart Attacks:
- Follow your doctor’s medication recommendations, including a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle changes.
- Routinely monitor your blood pressure and other vital signs.
Chronic Kidney Disease
Developing chronic kidney disease puts people at greater risk for kidney failure and heart disease. Damaged kidneys can no longer effectively filter waste and excess fluid away from the bloodstream. This build-up gradually weakens the entire body and can result in death without treatment.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage Chronic Kidney Disease:
- Individuals with high blood pressure or diabetes are at the highest risk for developing kidney damage. Taking steps to manage these diseases properly can help extend the health of the kidneys.
- Maintain routine communication with your doctor and follow their recommendations for medical prescriptions and diet and lifestyle changes.
Diabetes occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin or cannot produce sufficient amounts of insulin. This insulin imbalance results in high blood sugar, which can lead to kidney and heart disease and blindness if left untreated.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage Diabetes:
- Monitor carbohydrate and calorie consumption, limit alcohol consumption, and foods high in sugar.
- Follow a doctor-recommended exercise plan to control weight gain and stabilize blood glucose levels.
- Adhere to any medical prescriptions your doctor recommends stabilizing your insulin levels.
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease occurs due to plaque build-up in the arteries leading to the heart. Coronary heart disease can result in a heart attack, blood clots, or angina. If left untreated, this disease dramatically reduces a person’s quality of life and ultimately results in death.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage Coronary Heart Disease:
- Avoid a diet of high-fat and processed foods
- Sleep for at least 7 hours
- Reduce stress levels
- Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise (such as walking, cycling, and swimming)
- Stop smoking
- Routinely monitor your cholesterol and blood pressure levels
Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints which results in pain and a decrease in the range of motion for the affected area. Arthritis robs people of their ability to care for themselves and enjoy activities and hobbies. As a result, arthritis leads to a more sedentary and isolated lifestyle that can contribute to many other significant illnesses.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage Arthritis:
- Engage in a variety of exercise activities, including strength-building (using weights or exercise bands), stretching (yoga, tai chi), and cardiovascular (walking, cycling, swimming).
- Maintain a recommended weight. Extra pounds place extra pressure on your joints.
- Quit smoking.
High cholesterol develops when too many bad fats (saturated and trans-fatty acids) are in the bloodstream. Over time, this results in clogged arteries and contributes to heart disease and high cholesterol. However, high cholesterol can be effectively managed through prescription drugs and diet and lifestyle changes.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage High Cholesterol:
- Stop smoking and limit alcohol consumption
- Stay active by participating in a variety of exercises and activities
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Cut back on saturated fats and trans fats (often found in fast food and highly processed food) and eat a balanced diet rich in vegetables, grains, and lean protein.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure and hypertension result from your body moving blood throughout the blood vessels at a too forceful or too high rate. While having moments of elevated blood pressure is normal, a persistently high blood pressure rate can lead to a stroke or a heart attack.
Action Steps You Can Take to Avoid or Manage High Blood Pressure Include:
- Losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight. Gaining or losing as little as 10 pounds can change your blood pressure levels.
- Find healthy ways to cope with stress (yoga, meditation, exercise, talk therapy)
- Reduce salt and alcohol
- Have a regular exercise habit that includes aerobic activities, stretching, and strength-building.
- Regularly monitor your blood pressure
The Number of Senior Citizens is Increasing in the United States
Based on data provided by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, in 2019, there were slightly more than 54 million adults age 65 or older in the United States. This number is 16% of the country’s total population—or 1 in 7 Americans. If you look around you, chances are you know several people in this age group. They may be family members, co-workers, neighbors, and members of community activities. Because people are living longer, it’s expected that by 2040, the number of senior citizens will reach over 80 million. And by 2060, 25% of the total population in the United States will be held by those age 65 or older.
The Importance of Caregivers in an Aging Society
While senior citizens are living longer, chronic healthcare issues such as those listed in this article are becoming more common. As a result, the need for caregivers has already reached record demand and will only increase as the population ages.
Living a long life brings many opportunities for families and society. Having a good quality of life when one reaches age 65 means a chance to try new activities and contribute in new ways to extended families and communities. However, senior citizens may be robbed of these opportunities in their post-retirement years if they are not in good health.
But the good news is that it’s never too late to make improvements. Working with your doctor, building new healthy habits, and being in a supportive environment can make all the difference. If you’ve been diagnosed with a health condition in this article, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to improve your lifestyle; many more enjoyable years may result from your effort!