Those first strands of gray hair are a sign of the inevitable. We’re getting older and our bodies are changing. We may grow a little rounder around the waistline, or wake in the night, or feel a little stiffer in the morning. Yet while we adapt to new realities, we shouldn’t discount every symptom as just further evidence of aging.
How do you know when to ignore your body’s lapses or when to seek medical advice? What’s normal aging, and what’s not?
“Aging, in and of itself, is a subtle, quiet process,” says Marie Bernard, MD, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging. If you have a sudden change or if you feel pain, that is a red flag, she says.
“I’ve had many a patient come in and complain about pain in the knee. They’ve said, ‘It’s just my age,’” says Bernard, a geriatrician. “The reality of the matter is both knees are the same age. Why is one knee painful and the other is not?”
We shouldn’t think of aging as a failure of our bodily systems, says Kenneth Minaker, MD, chief of geriatric medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Aging is a life-saving process,” he says. “It is a process of lifelong adaptation to prevent us from developing cancers that would kill us.”
Natural changes in cells may slow them down or alter their capacity, he says. Most people reach their peak functioning at around age 30.
How soon you notice age-related changes in stamina, strength, or sensory perception will vary based on your personal health choices, your medical history, and your genetics, Minaker says.
Some age-related complaints are common, and some symptoms aren’t caused by aging at all. Here is some advice on how to tell the difference:
By around age 40, almost everyone will be reaching for reading glasses. Presbyopia occurs when the lens becomes stiff and won’t adjust to refocus from distance to near vision. Cataracts, or clouding of the lens, may begin to affect your vision when you reach your 60s. Long-term exposure to sunlight increases the risk of cataracts, which can be corrected through surgery to replace the lens.
If you notice you have worse peripheral than central vision, or the reverse, you could have a serious eye condition that requires treatment. Glaucoma occurs when the pressure in the eye increases and causes damage to the optic nerve. Two forms of macular degeneration affect the center of the retina, leading to a loss of central vision.
The bottom line: “If you feel you’re having blurred vision or vision loss, you should get your eyes examined,” says Hilary Beaver, MD, associate professor of clinical ophthalmology at the Weil Cornell Medical College at The Methodist Hospital in Houston. It’s a good idea to have preventive checkups, too, especially if you have diabetes or a family history of glaucoma or macular degeneration, she says.