No matter how young you feel, the risk of certain conditions rises in your senior years. That doesn’t mean you’re destined to get sick or lose function. It just means your health care needs change, especially after age 70.
You might need more medical tests than you’re used to. Or you could have a few embarrassing health problems. You may need help managing new joint pain.
Count on your doctor to check you (and treat you, if needed) for a range of conditions that are more likely to affect older adults.
Heart attacks, strokes, and coronary artery disease are more common in people 65 and older than they are in younger people. Among the reasons for this:
- Your heart may not beat as fast as it needs to during physical activity.
- Fatty deposits (plaque) have built up in artery walls over the years.
- Arteries grow stiffer with age, which can lead to high blood pressure.
- Your heart can develop arrhythmias: unusually fast, slow, or irregular heartbeats.
Your doctor will check your heart health more closely as you age. Tools that can help them decide how well your heart works and assess your risk of heart disease include:
- Blood pressure check
- Fasting blood test for cholesterol, which leads to plaque buildup
- Blood test for markers of inflammation
- Blood sugar level
- Electrocardiogram (EKG), which looks at electrical activity in your heart
- Echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create pictures of your heart
You may need to take several prescription medications after 70. In one large survey of people 62-86 years old, 87% took at least one prescription drug, and 36% took at least five. At any age, and certainly after 70, you should ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice on managing your meds. You can learn about possible interactions and strategies to help you take all your medications, among other helpful tips.
Properly prescribed medicines can help you get healthy, stay healthy, and manage chronic diseases. But they also come with important risks for older adults:
- Adverse reactions. Taking several medications prescribed by multiple doctors can increase your risk of problems like falls, depression, confusion, and hallucinations.
- Cost. The price of drugs may prevent you from taking them exactly as prescribed. Nearly one in four older adults skip doses or don’t fill prescriptions for financial reasons.
- Improper use. Accidental or intentional misuse or mixing of prescription drugs can lead to thoughts of suicide, or worse.
At any age, and certainly after 70, you should ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice on managing your meds. You can learn about possible interactions and strategies to help you take all your medications, among other helpful tips.
It’s common for older adults, especially women, to leak pee. This is called incontinence. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have it, even though it may be embarrassing. Rest assured, doctors are used to talking about this subject.
Incontinence often results from health issues, like weak bladder or pelvic floor muscles. In older men, an enlarged prostate can lead to leaks.
There are treatments that work, like:
- Pelvic muscle exercises
- Bladder training
- Lifestyle changes
Bone health becomes more important to keep track of as you age. Research shows that 70% of all fractures happen to people 65 and older. In part, that’s because your bones become less dense over time. You may get osteopenia (mild bone loss) or osteoporosis (severe bone loss).
There are a few reasons why bones get less dense. One is that your body absorbs less calcium from foods. In addition, older adults may have low levels of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Women can also blame menopause. Estrogen plays a role your body’s bone-building process, and estrogen levels drop after menopause.
To protect your bones and reduce fracture risk:
- Eat healthy food.
- Take calcium and vitamin D supplements.
- Take steps to prevent falls.
- Talk to your doctor about bone-building drugs.
Joint Pain From Arthritis
Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common diseases in older adults. It happens when cartilage, the cushiony tissue between your joints, wears away. OA causes pain, stiffness, and raises your risk of joint injury.
Unlike with other types of chronic pain, many OA treatments can give you significant pain relief. They include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- Hyaluronic acid shots
- Some antidepressants
- Exercise (strength, stretching, balance, and cardio)
- Weight loss
- Assistive devices, such as braces or shoe inserts
In severe cases of hip and knee OA, joint replacement surgery may also help relieve pain.
Other Health Care Needs After 70
Some after-70 health care needs are the same as in younger years. They just take on a new level of importance. These are five of many possible examples.
- Eye health. Make eye exams a priority. Glaucoma, a treatable disease that occurs when fluid builds up in the front part of your eye, is the top cause of blindness in people over 60.
- Hearing checks. You should get your hearing checked every 3 years after you turn 50. About one-third of adults between 61 and 70 have some type of hearing loss, but more than 80% of those 85 and older do. Just getting older can lead to hearing loss, but so can certain medications and long-term exposure to noise.
- Flu and pneumonia shots. An annual flu shot is important for adults 65 and older. Once you reach that age, you’re at a higher risk for serious flu complications than younger, healthy people. It’s also a good idea for most older adults to get a pneumonia shot, or pneumococcal vaccination, which protects you from pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections.
- COVID-19 vaccines. Adults ages 65 and older also have a greater chance of getting seriously ill from COVID-19. Getting vaccinated is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself.
- Mental health. Events like retirement and the death of a loved one can lead to stress when you’re older. Grief is a normal response. Less normal is long-lasting grief that prevents you from sleeping or living your daily life. Those are signs of depression, which is a medical condition. You may need treatment to feel better.
National Institute on Aging: “Heart Health and Aging,” “Older Adults and Depression,” “Urinary Incontinence in Older Adults.”
UpToDate: “Drug prescribing for older adults.”
Medscape: “Fact Sheet: Prescription Medication Use by Older Adults.”
Drugs and Aging: “Management of Osteoporosis among the Elderly with Other Chronic Medical Conditions.”
Merck Manual: “Changes in Body with Aging.”
Arthritis Foundation: “Osteoarthritis.”
American Academy of Ophthalmology: “What is Glaucoma?”
CDC: “Influenza,” "COVID-19 Recommendations for Older Adults."
American Family Physician: “Hearing Loss in Older Adults.”
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: “Hearing Screening.”