As people age, a number of health conditions can shift, causing mild irritation and consternation to a full outbreak of pain and disability. For some older adults, their eyesight dims or hearing fades. For others, arthritis sets in or their teeth start to break. Since American seniors on average are living another 19 years once they reach age 65, those two decades can prove challenging for keeping healthy.
“Many changes in physical condition and ability gradually occur as a person ages, so what is considered a ‘minor health issue,’ a cut on the skin for example, can be a serious health risk to an elderly person,” said Gregg Balbera, president of Right at Home Nassau Suffolk. “So how can a senior ward off the common health issues of aging and remain healthy overall in later life? Are certain declines in health inevitable or actually preventable?”
Balbera details the following five age-related health changes in older adults and suggests prevention measures for each condition.
Dryness, wrinkles and age spots can all occur as the skin ages. Older people have fewer oil glands and perspire less, increasing skin dryness. Aging skin also thins and loses fat, so the skin appears less supple and smooth. Smoking is detrimental on the skin, harming skin’s elastin proteins and increasing facial wrinkles. Taking a number of medications or dealing with medical issues such as an underactive thyroid or cardiovascular or renal conditions can also stress and dry out the skin.
- Protect your skin from the damaging effects of sun exposure. Staying out of direct sun is one of the most effective and cheapest ways to maintain healthy, youthful-looking skin. The American Academy of Dermatology offers a number of valuable resources on sun safety, including how to select and apply sunscreen.
- Get an annual full-body skin check from a professional dermatologist. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of people who live to at least age 65 will develop basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer at least once. Skin cancer in the United States is the most prevalent type of cancer.
- Prevent skin dryness and itching by increasing humidity in the home and countering the drying effects of winter overheating and summer air conditioning.
- Go easy on using antiperspirants, soaps and perfumes, and taking hot baths or showers—all of these are drying on the skin. Applying a moisturizer within a few minutes of taking a bath or shower can help prevent skin dryness.
- Keep adequately hydrated.
- Ask your doctor about getting the shingles vaccine. Older adults are more susceptible to contracting this painful, blistery skin rash that lives in nerve cells after an earlier outbreak of the chickenpox virus.
Children are not the only ones who can get cavities. As the teeth’s outer protective enamel layer wears down, bacteria in the form of sticky dental plaque can cause tooth decay and cavities. Plaque that remains on teeth too long builds up into hardened tartar, which brushing cannot clean. Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease or gingivitis, can cause gums to swell, recede from teeth and form pockets that can become infected. The infection can deteriorate gums, bone and tissue that hold teeth in place.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that during 2011-2014, almost 18 percent of adults age 65 and older had lost all of their natural, permanent teeth. The CDC also notes that in 2016, only 64.3 percent of seniors age 65 and older visited their dentist in the past year. Although Medicare does not cover routine dental exams, some health insurance companies and organizations like AARP offer supplemental dental insurance plans for their members.
The elderly may also experience a problem with dry mouth, which makes a person more cavity prone. Dry mouth is a side effect of more than 500 medications, including those for allergies, anxiety, high blood pressure, pain and high cholesterol. Oral cancers are another problem that increases with age. The American Cancer Society cites that the average age for mouth, throat or tongue cancer is age 62.
- Brush your teeth at least twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste. Clean between teeth daily with dental floss or a special flossing product.
- Clean dentures daily with specific cleaners designed for dentures.
- Relieve dry mouth symptoms by drinking more water and using an over-the-counter spray or mouthwash moisturizer. If dry mouth is a problem, check with your physician about changing medications or dosages.
- Visit your dentist at least once a year for teeth cleaning and a dental exam.
- If daily oral care is challenging, talk with your dentist or dental hygienist about a different approach with keeping teeth and gums clean.
- Quit smoking. Smoking leads to increased problems with tooth decay, gum disease and tooth loss.
Vision and hearing are two of the body’s main senses that are affected by age. For many people, eyesight begins to diminish around age 40. The National Institute on Aging reports that roughly one-third of people ages 65 to 74 experience hearing loss, and nearly half of people age 75 and older have trouble hearing. Problems with vision and hearing can lead to depression, withdrawal, anger and loss of self-esteem, especially in the elderly.
Vision loss with age includes presbyopia, a slow loss of the ability to see close up. Cataracts, glaucoma and retinal disorders such as macular degeneration also increase with age. Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is gradual but should not be ignored if left untreated. Many seniors also encounter tinnitus, which causes a ringing, roaring or other bothersome noise in the ears. In many cases of eyesight or hearing loss, corrective lenses, hearing aids, medications or surgery are treatments that can help.
- Get a yearly eye exam if you are over age 50 or have known health risks. If you are diabetic, you will need regular eye exams and careful blood sugar monitoring.
- Eat a nutritious diet that promotes healthy eyesight. Foods packed with vitamins A, C and E and rich in omega fatty acids help protect the eyes from dryness and infection.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking significantly increases the risk for macular degeneration that causes blurring or vision loss in the eye’s center field of vision.
- Wear durable eye protection for activities that could injure the eyes (e.g., certain contact sports, construction, metal working, handling firearms and working with chemicals).
- Avoid exposure to loud noises. Wear earplugs, ear muffs or custom ear gear when around activities or events with excess noise.
- Turn down the volume on music, the television, etc. Use noise-canceling earphones or headphones.
- Use a smartphone app that measures noise levels, and be sure it is properly calibrated for an accurate reading.
- Talk to your doctor about medications that can be harmful to hearing.
- Know your family history and medical conditions that can cause hearing deficits.
- Ask your doctor about a hearing screening as part of an annual physical. After age 50 or if you or others notice your hearing diminish, make an appointment with an audiologist for a hearing health
Bones and Joints
The body’s weight-bearing bones and major joints take considerable wear and tear over the years. By the time a person reaches their 60s, they face two of the most common forms of age-related health conditions: osteoporosis and arthritis. Osteoporosis is a gradual process of a person’s bones thinning, losing density and becoming fragile to the point of easily breaking. Women are the most susceptible to this bone weakening, and the bones typically affected are the hip, spine and wrist.
A survey reported that arthritis, one of the most prevalent causes of chronic pain, affected an estimated 54.4 million Americans, and almost half of them were age 65 and older. The CDC projects that by 2040, the prevalence of doctor-diagnosed arthritis in U.S. adults age 18 and older will reach 78.4 million people—two-thirds of them will be women. There are more than 100 types of arthritis, including gout and lupus. Osteoarthritis, the joint wear-and-tear condition, is the most common form of arthritis in older adults. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that occurs when a person’s immune system attacks the body’s healthy tissues, eroding the lining of joints (synovium) and triggering painful inflammation.7
- Check with your physician about when to get a bone mass density scan.
- Participate in weight-bearing exercises such as walking, weight lifting and other types of strength and resistance training to strengthen bones. Moderate to brisk exercise at least three times a week can help improve bone mass and decrease fractures.
- Consume adequate amounts of calcium-rich foods daily or take calcium supplements. Some of the best calcium-packed foods include dairy products, eggs, sardines, orange juice with added calcium, broccoli, and kale. Check with your doctor on the right calcium amount for your body.
- Be sure to get enough vitamin D in your diet, which helps your body absorb calcium. Check with your doctor on the amount of vitamin D you need through sunshine, foods and a possible supplement.
- Control your weight to take extra stress off joints.
- Avoid injuries to bones and joints by wearing proper sports equipment and getting adequate safety training for work and play.
- Do not smoke. The Mayo Clinic and other well-known medical institutions report that smoking is linked to developing rheumatoid arthritis, particularly in people who have smoked for 20 years or more.
- Eat a nutritious diet with low amounts of alcohol, sugar and purines. Consuming fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids has shown to reduce inflammation and lower the risk for rheumatoid arthritis.
The aging process also creates less-talked about problems with both men and women: urogenital symptoms of urinary incontinence, urinary tract infections and an enlarged prostate. With age, the bladder’s elastic tissue may toughen and stretch less, limiting the amount of urine the bladder can hold and prompting the need for more frequent urination. In older adults, the muscles in the pelvic floor and bladder wall may weaken, causing urine to leak or difficulty in fully emptying the bladder.
Older women are more likely to encounter issues with bladder control, while senior men may struggle to even pass urine because the prostate gland tends to grow bigger with age and can constrict the urethra tube that directs urine out of the body. The National Council for Aging Care reports that the average age for prostate cancer is age 66, and more than 70 percent of men over age 80 have some level of cancer cells in their prostate. Prostate cancer is considered a slower-growing disease, and the American Cancer Society finds that 96 percent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer live 15 years past their initial date of diagnosis.
- Be aware of factors that affect bladder health. Some medications, caffeine and alcohol can bother the bladder. Some people find that sodas, artificial sweeteners, and citrus- and tomato-based foods make bladder problems worse. Constipation can also put extra pressure on the bladder and keep it from properly expanding.
- Practice wise health habits overall. Since there is no sure-fire prevention for prostate cancer, medical professionals recommend reducing risk for the disease by maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active and eating a diet high in certain vegetables. Several studies have shown that consuming cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower), tomatoes, soy, beans and other legumes have lowered the risk for prostate cancer.
“As all of us age, it is important to get regular health exams and be intentional about our diet and exercise,” Balbera said. “I am always encouraged when we work with seniors who are proactive about warding off common health problems of aging. These are the individuals who model how to live well regardless of their body’s natural changes and their years on the calendar.”
Founded in 1995, Right at Home offers in-home companionship and personal care and assistance to seniors and adults with a disability who want to continue to live independently. The Nassau Suffolk office of Right at Home is a locally owned and operated franchise office of Right at Home, Inc., serving the communities Centerport, Cold Spring Hills, Commack, Dix Hills, East Northport, East Setauket, Greenlawn, Halesite, Hauppauge, Huntington, Kings Park, Lake Grove, Lloyd Harbor, Melville, Nesconset, Old Bethpage, Plainview, St. James, Smithtown, Stony Brook, West Hills and Woodbury.
For more information, contact Right at Home Nassau Suffolk at www.rightathomeli.com, 516-719-5999 or 631-352-0022 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.