Sun. Apr 21st, 2024

As we age, some degree of physical decline seems inevitable. Your knees might ache, your back feels stiff, and your memory may not be as sharp as it once was. Does this sound familiar?

It’s easy to attribute every new ache, pain, or forgetful moment to simply “getting older” isn’t it? However, many common health changes that are often dismissed as just signs of aging can actually indicate more serious underlying conditions.

The key is recognizing when normal age-related deterioration crosses over into concerning symptoms that warrant medical evaluation. 

This is vitally important, as many age-related diseases and disorders can be treated more effectively when caught early. As we age, we tend to become more tolerant of discomfort and impairments, but this can lead to missing key opportunities for intervention.

We will go over some of the most common health changes associated with aging and provide tips on identifying when they are a normal part of the aging process and when they are cause for concern. We will cover areas including cognition, cardiovascular health, vision, hearing, balance and mobility, bone and joint health, fatigue, and more. 

Our goal is to educate people of a certain age and their loved ones on the differences between typical age-related declines in function and changes that should be discussed with your doctor. Recognizing and responding to concerning symptoms as early as possible could significantly improve quality of life and longevity.

Let’s review each area in detail, so you can make informed decisions about your health as you age. Paying attention to your body and being your own best advocate are key to remaining happy and healthy for many years to come.

Changes in Cognition

Some amount of increased forgetfulness and decreased mental sharpness is often dismissed as a normal part of the aging process. 

After all, who hasn’t walked into a room and forgotten why they went in there in the first place as they get older? 

However, there are key differences between normal age-related changes in cognition and more concerning symptoms:

Normal age-related cognitive changes:

  • Occasionally forgetting names, appointments, or where you left something
  • Taking a bit longer to learn new skills or information
  • Difficulty focusing or paying attention for long periods
  • Short term memory lapses, but ability to recall details later

Potentially concerning cognitive changes:

  • Progressive difficulty remembering recent events and conversations, not just occasional forgetfulness
  • Increasing confusion about time, place, people’s names or identities
  • Significant changes in judgement, decision making, or analytical abilities
  • Noticeable declines in performance at work or ability to manage finances
  • Personality shifts, such as increased irritability, anxiety, or apathy
  • Withdrawing from social activities due to mental fatigue or unease
  • Inability to follow along or participate in conversations

If you notice worsening memory loss, confusion, or personality changes, don’t immediately assume it’s just a normal sign of aging – discuss these symptoms with your doctor. 

While some decline in sharpness and recall can happen as we get older, more pronounced symptoms may indicate conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, mini-strokes, thyroid disorders, vitamin deficiencies, depression, and more. 

Many of these can be treated more effectively when identified early.

Changes in Vision

It’s common knowledge that vision tends to decline with age. Reading glasses become part of the daily wardrobe and you might have more difficulty driving at night. But could your changes in vision indicate something other than normal aging?

Normal age-related vision changes:

  • Difficulty focusing on close objects, needing reading glasses
  • Colors appear slightly faded or muted
  • Slight sensitivity to glare
  • Eyes take longer to recover from bright lights
  • Difficulty adjusting to dim lighting

Potentially concerning vision changes:

  • Sudden loss of vision or rapid deterioration in vision
  • Development of blind spots, floaters, flashes of light, curtains over field of vision
  • Significant light sensitivity or pain in the eyes
  • Recurrent eye infections or eye injuries
  • Red or swollen eyes not related to infection
  • Seeing halos around lights
  • Double vision

While some vision changes are expected with older age, sudden unexplained differences or rapid vision loss should be promptly evaluated by an eye doctor. 

Underlying systemic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune disorders, and stroke can present with new vision problems. 

Catching these early is crucial. Don’t dismiss sudden vision issues as just another sign you’re getting older – discuss it with your optometrist. They can identify any concerning changes that require further treatment to prevent permanent damage.

Changes in Heart Health

Cardiovascular conditions become increasingly common with age, making it tempting to dismiss minor symptoms as normal effects of aging. However, being proactive and recognizing concerning changes is crucial for early detection and treatment.

Potentially normal age-related cardiovascular changes:

  • Exercise capacity decreases – activities require more effort and you tire more quickly
  • Blood pressure rises slightly – usually to less than 140/90 mmHg
  • Arteries stiffen – pulse pressure (difference between systolic and diastolic) increases
  • Veins weaken – varicose veins become more noticeable
  • Heart rate at rest increases slightly – typical less than 100 BPM

Potentially concerning cardiovascular symptoms to discuss with your doctor:

  • Chest pain, tightness, pressure – Brief sharp chest pain can sometimes occur with exertion. However, persistent tightness, pressure, squeezing sensations, or burning, especially when resting, warrant medical evaluation. Can indicate angina or heart attack.
  • Shortness of breath – Expected with intense activity but concerning if persistent at rest, lying down, or with usual daily functions. Get evaluated for heart failure.
  • Palpitations – Noticeable rapid, fluttering heartbeat or skipped beats. Caused by arrhythmias, heart disease, thyroid disorders.
  • Swelling in extremities – Some swelling in ankles or feet can occur after long periods of standing. But consistent edema in lower limbs, or swelling in hands, signals heart strain and warrants evaluation.
  • Fatigue, weakness – Normal with strenuous activity. Concerning if persistent decrease in stamina with usual daily routine. Can indicate heart failure.
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness – Occasional with sudden standing up. Worrisome if frequent, persistent, or happens while lying down or sitting. Can signal arrhythmia or poor heart function.

Do not ignore new or worsening cardiovascular symptoms. 

What may seem like normal aging could be early stage heart disease. Getting appropriate diagnostic tests at the first signs of decline can greatly improve outcomes. Do not simply dismiss heart health changes – discuss them with your doctor.

Changes in Bone and Joint Health

Aching joints, stiffness, and frailty can seem like inevitable parts of aging. However, certain symptoms should not simply be dismissed as normal effects of getting older.

Potentially normal musculoskeletal aging changes:

  • Joint stiffness and mild achiness after long periods of inactivity
  • A feeling of stiffness lasting less than 30 minutes after waking
  • Slight muscle soreness after intense exercise
  • Low-level arthritis causing minimal joint pain and stiffness, typically in knees, hips, fingers, neck
  • Thinning cartilage leading to some loss of flexibility and shock absorption
  • Gradual loss of up to 1 cm in height per decade after age 40

Concerning bone and joint symptoms requiring medical evaluation:

  • Persistent throbbing joint pain at rest or night pain that interrupts sleep
  • Sudden, severe joint swelling and deformity with no inciting injury
  • Locking of the knees, clicking sounds, instability when walking
  • Morning joint stiffness that lasts over 30 minutes and is slow to resolve
  • Multiple joints affected by swelling and stiffness simultaneously
  • Back pain, height loss, or posture changes like hyperkyphosis or dowager’s hump
  • Fractures, breaks, or dislocations from minor accidents like tripping or falling from standing

Unexplained bone pain, rapidly worsening joint degeneration, posture shifts, and easy fracturing from minor trauma are not simply normal results of aging. 

While some musculoskeletal decline is expected, new or quickly progressing symptoms warrant medical assessment. 

Early treatment of conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoporosis symptoms can help better manage pain and retain mobility. Stay active but do not ignore changes – speak to your doctor.

Changes in Energy Levels and Fatigue

Feeling constantly exhausted is often chalked up to just being part of getting older. However, ongoing fatigue and severe lack of energy can indicate more serious underlying medical conditions.

Potentially normal age-related changes in energy:

  • Longer recovery time needed between intense aerobic activity as cardiovascular endurance decreases
  • More prone to tiredness after long sedentary periods without movement to stimulate circulation
  • Heavier reliance on restorative sleep and naps to recharge as the body’s energy reserves decline
  • Short-term tiredness due to grief, illness, stress can require longer recovery

Concerning exhaustion and fatigue symptoms requiring medical evaluation:

  • Fatigue persisting 2+ weeks without identifiable cause like illness, exercise, stress
  • Physical and mental exhaustion not relieved by adequate sleep and rest
  • Debilitating muscle weakness making exercise difficult
  • Mental “fogginess”, difficulty concentrating and focusing
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath accompanying fatigue
  • Unintended weight gain or loss of 10+ lbs over prior 3 months
  • Fatigue severe enough to impair work performance, daily activities, social life

While some increase in fatigue occurs with aging, sudden persistent exhaustion, muscle weakness, mental cloudiness point to underlying health conditions requiring diagnosis and treatment:

  • Anemia – low red blood cell count reduces oxygen delivery
  • Thyroid disorders – hypothyroidism causes fatigue, hyperthyroidism weakness
  • Diabetes – causes poor glucose metabolism and nerve damage
  • Sleep apnea – impaired breathing interrupts sleep
  • Heart failure – impaired heart function causes tiredness and shortness of breath
  • Depression – mental health condition includes severe fatigue
  • Autoimmune diseases – conditions like lupus cause pronounced fatigue

Do not simply accept ongoing exhaustion as a normal result of getting older. Discuss pronounced fatigue with your doctor to evaluate for any treatable causes. Regaining energy is essential for healthy aging and good quality of life.

Changes in Balance and Mobility

Some loss of stability and mobility can seem inevitable with advanced age. However, frequent falls or impairment in movement can often be improved with tailored medical treatment and therapy.

Potentially normal age-related balance and mobility changes:

  • Using hand rails more often when climbing stairs for stability
  • Occasional minor slips or trips that do not actually result in falling
  • Feeling cautious about walking on uneven terrain like grass or gravel
  • Modest decrease in coordination – movements require more effort and attention
  • Slight slowing of reflexes and reaction time if tripping or slipping

Concerning balance and mobility symptoms requiring medical assessment:

  • Recurrent falls, especially those resulting in injury needing medical treatment
  • Unsteady gait – shuffling feet close to the ground, small steps
  • Sudden need for cane or walker in order to ambulate safely
  • Ongoing dizziness, vertigo, lightheadedness when standing or walking
  • Deterioration in dexterity and handwriting – difficulty with buttons, holding utensils
  • Inability to stand up from a chair without using hands for support
  • General feeling of disequilibrium and veering to one side while walking

While some decline in balance can occur with age, frequent falls or impairment in walking ability may be caused by treatable medical conditions including:

  • Heart disease – decreased blood flow can cause dizziness
  • Neuropathy – nerve damage leads to reduced sensation in feet
  • Strokes – damage to brain centers controlling equilibrium
  • Arthritis – joint pain and stiffness disrupt balance
  • Parkinson’s disease – impairs coordination and movement
  • Dementia – inhibits judgement, decision making while moving
  • Medication side effects – dizziness, drowsiness
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency – causes neurological changes

Do not simply limit activities due to balance concerns. Consult a doctor to identify and treat any causative condition. 

Physical therapy can also improve strength and stability. Taking action can reduce fall risk and maintain mobility.

Changes in Bladder and Bowel Health

Urinary urgency and incontinence as well as constipation are often considered just unavoidable consequences of aging. However, there are many ways to treat and manage these conditions to improve comfort and quality of life.

Potentially normal age-related changes include:

  • Needing to urinate more frequently, especially overnight
  • Occasional mild urine leakage with vigorous exercise
  • Constipation happening once in awhile, especially related to diet changes or dehydration

Concerning bladder and bowel symptoms requiring evaluation:

  • Frequent urinary incontinence – leaking urine involuntarily on a regular basis
  • Sudden inability to control bladder urges or need to rush to restroom
  • Burning pain while urinating or blood in urine
  • Constipation resulting in less than 3 bowel movements per week
  • Hard, dry, difficult to pass stools requiring excessive straining
  • Persistent diarrhea lasting more than 2 weeks

Bladder and bowel issues tend to increase with age but should not simply be accepted as inevitable. There are treatments available, including:

  • Lifestyle changes – diet, fluid intake, exercise
  • Pelvic floor physical therapy
  • Bladder retraining techniques
  • Prescription medications
  • Medical devices – pessaries, nerve stimulators

Speak with your doctor for an evaluation if you notice new or worsening bladder or bowel symptoms. Getting appropriate treatment can greatly improve quality of life.

When to See Your Doctor

With aging, certain health changes may seem standard. But how do you know when to seek medical advice?

Red flags indicating professional evaluation include:

  • Memory loss impacting daily function
  • Rapid deterioration in vision
  • New or worsening chest pain and breathing issues
  • Frequent falls or reduced mobility
  • Unexplained, persistent fatigue
  • Back pain with posture changes, height loss
  • Fractures from minimal trauma
  • Persistent bladder or bowel issues

Do not simply assume concerning symptoms are “normal for your age.” Many can be caused by treatable conditions like dementia, diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, sleep apnea, and more. Getting diagnosed early makes a difference.

You know your body best. Do not downplay or ignore changes that disrupt your normal function. Speaking up and getting checked out could significantly improve your health, independence, and quality of life.

As we age, some decline in physical and mental function is expected. However, many concerning health changes are NOT inevitable results of just getting older. Recognizing when symptoms may indicate more serious conditions is key to maintaining your best health.

Do not simply dismiss worsening memory, ongoing exhaustion, frequent falls, or new incontinence as par for the course. Instead, be attuned to your body’s signals and discuss changes that impact your daily function with your doctor. In many cases, early intervention can treat underlying causes and greatly improve quality of life.

You know yourself better than anyone. 

Understand what is typical aging versus potential red flags. Work closely with your medical providers, care team, and loved ones to optimize your wellbeing as you get older. With proactive care, many healthy, active years can still lie ahead.

By admin

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