Surprising Health Challenges of Aging

You exercise. You eat right. You’re in pretty good shape for someone your age.

Still, getting older can bring on health problems as our bodies change. Not everyone will get them. But some medical conditions become more common or more serious after we get a few decades under our belts.

Here are some surprising ways that age itself can pose health challenges.

Flu

When you’re over age 65, your immune system isn’t as strong as it used to be. Seniors make up the bulk of the people who die or are hospitalized for flu-related problems. Age raises the chances of serious flu complications like:

A yearly flu shot is a must. If you’re older than age 65, ask your doctor about the high-dose version, which offers more protection.

Weight Gain

Getting older can be a triple whammy. You lose muscle as you age. That makes it harder to keep the pounds from creeping up. You also become less active. At the same time, your body burns fewer calories for the same physical activities as when you were younger.

You probably know that being overweight or obese raises you chances for many conditions, like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. But the extra pounds can pose an even bigger burden for older people. Everyday movements like walking and getting out of chairs get harder. Obesity and arthritis often go together.

So whether you're 50 or 80, ask your doctor about smart ways to fight the weight gain. Every bit helps.

One way is with exercise. Guidelines that call for working out 30-60 minutes a day are fine for younger adults. But that may not be realistic for many older folks. It’s best to work with your doctor to come up with an exercise plan matched to your health and fitness level. Just remember that it's never too late to start! Even simple muscle-toning exercises can help you stay limber and mobile.

Sleep Problems

Kids and adolescents need to sleep longer than young adults do. But in our senior years, we need to go back to the 7 to 9 hours of daily shut-eye as in our teens.

Studies show that most sleep problems are not related to aging. Instead, it can stem from medical or emotional conditions that come on as we get older. Aging also affects our sleep-wake pattern. It makes us sleepier earlier in the evening and wakes us up earlier in the morning. That’s true even if you were a night owl before. If you don’t get enough sleep after age 50, it can make you more likely to have memory problems, pain, depression, and nighttime falls.

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Nutrition Problems

Our nutritional needs change as we age. Many of us don't eat as well. Plus, older bodies can more easily lack certain vitamins and nutrients. These include vitamin B12 (we don’t absorb it from foods as well); calcium (we need more as we age); vitamin D (our skin doesn't soak it up as well from the sun); and vitamin B6 (we need it to keep red blood cells healthy and strong).

Usually, all you need is any multivitamin that offers the minimum daily requirement. You also don't need huge doses. In fact, they can be harmful. If you’re taking any prescription medications, let your doctor know which supplements you take so you can avoid any bad interactions.

Fragile Bones

Many seniors fear falling. Advancing years can affect your balance and make you less steady and sure on your feet. Falls can be especially dangerous if you have osteoporosis, when your bones become less dense and more prone to breaks and fractures. Almost everyone gets it to some degree if they live long enough, but women ages 50 and older are twice more likely than their male peers to break a bone because of this “brittle bone disease.”

You can keep your bones stronger if you:

  • Eat lots of fruits, veggies, and foods high in calcium.
  • Ask your doctor if you need a vitamin D supplement. Older bodies absorb less of it from the sun.
  • Lift weights or do exercises that use your own body weight (walking, pushups, squats).
  • Quit smoking and avoid too much alcohol (more than two or three drinks a day).

Cancer

Did you know that age is the single biggest predictor of your chances of getting cancer? It jumps up after you hit age 50. Half of all cancers happen in people over age 65. For lung cancer, the median age is 70.

Scientists don’t know exactly why older people are more susceptible to cancer. It could simply be that you’ve been exposed to cancer-causing agents for longer. Or maybe your body is less able to make repairs when cells go haywire.

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Still, getting older doesn’t mean you’re destined to get cancer. You can adopt healthy habits proven to help you lower the odds.

  • Slim down. Obesity is linked to 13 different types of cancer, including breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers.
  • Cut down on red and processed meat.
  • Exercise regularly. It helps to not only prevent some cancers, but keep them from coming back.

You should also ask your doctor about these screening exams:

Men over 50:

Women over 50:

Depression

It’s not an unavoidable part of getting older. In fact, about 1 in 20 Americans ages 60 and older have depression, the lowest rate of any age group. But many depressed seniors don’t get diagnosed. Older Americans themselves and their doctors may dismiss any symptoms as a natural reaction to illnesses and life’s setbacks.

Many more older Americans may have something called subsyndromal depression. You may feel less pleasure or interest in activities and people as you did before, but you don’t have full-blown symptoms for major depression.

You’re more likely to be depressed if you have long-term health issues like heart disease or arthritis that put limits on your life. People who need home health care are more likely to have the condition compared with other older adults.

If you feel this way for a few weeks or months, talk to your doctor. Simple lifestyle or diet changes -- and sometimes medication -- may be all you need to regain your enthusiasm for life.

Medication and psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can also treat it. Loneliness can lead to depression. So seek ways to connect with others. Talk to friends and family. Join a class or a group. Do volunteer work. Find whatever ways to enrich your body and spirit.

Memory Loss

Some memory loss happens as we age. The aging brain stores information in a slightly different way, so it’s harder for you to recall recent events. So no need to worry if you find yourself stumped for a name or forget where you put the car keys.

But what’s not normal is if you can’t remember simple things like how to follow directions or recipes or forget the way to your home. That could be a sign of a more serious memory loss caused by a medical condition like dementia or Alzheimer's disease. If so, your memory likely will get worse over time.

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Alcohol Tolerance Changes

Everyone has a different limit for booze. Some can have one or two drinks daily without problems, while others can’t sip a single glass without harm.

Still, alcohol tolerance usually moves in opposite direction of your age. That means you'll feel the effects like slower reaction time sooner and with fewer sips than when you were younger.

If you have more than one drink every day, it’s a good idea to let your doctor know. It’s an important part of your health record and could affect any medical treatments.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on June 08, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "What You Should Know and Do this Flu Season If You Are 65 Years and Older,” "Flu Symptoms & Complications,” "Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older,” “Depression in the U.S. Household Population, 2009-2012,” “Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older.”

Journal of Clinical Gerontology and Geriatrics: "Health consequences of obesity in the elderly.”

American Heart Association: "About Metabolic Syndrome.”

National Osteoporosis Foundation: "Bone Health Basics: Get the Facts.”

Dana Farber Cancer Institute: "Why Does Cancer Risk Increase As We Get Older?”

National Institutes of Health: "Age-Related Eye Diseases,” "Age-Related Hearing Loss.”

Wake Forest Baptist Health: "Age-Related Heart Disease.”

The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry: “Exergames for Subsyndromal Depression in Older Adults: A Pilot Study of a Novel Intervention.”

BioMed Central: “Does treatment of subsyndromal depression improve depression and diabetes related outcomes: protocol for a randomised controlled comparison of psycho-education, physical exercise and treatment as usual.”

National Institutes of Senior Health: "About Depression," "Sleeping and Aging."

National Institute on Aging: "More Is Not Always Better.”

National Arthritis Foundation: "Fact Sheet on Osteoarthritis," "Causes of Osteoarthritis."

National Sleep Foundation: "Aging Gracefully," "Sleeping Well."

National Osteoporosis Foundation: "Osteoporosis in Me," "Osteoporosis: Who Is At Risk."

National Institutes of Health: "The Exercise Guide."

American Lung Association: "Smoking Among Older Adults."

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Position Statement: Osteoporosis/Bone Health in Adults as a National Public Health Priority."

CDC: “Common Eye Disorders.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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