Some diseases occur more frequently in older people. While certain age-related medical conditions are mild and don’t make much difference to the senior’s day-to-day life, others require intensive treatment. Here’s our guide to the diseases that commonly affect the elderly, including their symptoms and current treatment options.
What Are Common Diseases in the Elderly
Older adults are at high risk for developing chronic illnesses that require ongoing medical attention and limit their daily activities. In fact, an estimated 80% of adults aged 65 and older have at least one chronic condition, while close to 70% have two or more. Physiological processes such as inflammation, exposure to environmental pollutants and lifestyle factors like smoking, poor eating habits, and lack of physical activity can accelerate the progression of these diseases in the elderly.
Below, we explain the most common age-related illnesses and conditions, their symptoms, and available treatments.
Heart disease, also referred to as cardiovascular disease, is a range of conditions that affect the heart, such as coronary heart disease, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmia), and heart infections. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women of all ethnic groups in the United States.
Coronary heart disease (CHD)
Coronary heart disease, also known as ischemic heart disease, is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries that lead to the heart. Narrow or blocked arteries decrease the amount of blood delivered to the heart and may cause complications such as blood clots, angina pectoris, or heart attack. Certain medical conditions and lifestyle choices increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease, for example, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes.
A heart arrhythmia is an abnormal heartbeat where the heart beats too fast, too slowly, or with an irregular pattern. A variety of factors such as stress, smoking, congenital heart defects, a previous heart attack, using substances or medications can affect the heart’s rhythm.
The most common type of heart arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation that causes an irregular, fast heartbeat. The condition usually occurs in older adults. It increases the risk of a stroke by around 5 times and is of particular concern to people with high blood pressure (hypertension), heart failure, diabetes, and a previous history of blood clots.
Heart failure is a serious condition where the heart doesn’t pump enough blood either because it can’t fill up with blood or if it is too weak to pump properly. Heart failure can damage the liver or kidneys, cause heart valve disease, and sudden cardiac arrest. It is typically caused by other conditions that damage the heart such as coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and previous cases of a heart attack.
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Upper back or neck pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Extreme fatigue
- Upper body discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Fluttering feelings in the chest (palpitations)
- Racing heartbeat (tachycardia)
- Slow heartbeat (bradycardia)
- Heart failure
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the feet, legs, abdomen, or neck veins
In order to prevent and manage heart disease, the senior should make the following lifestyle changes:
- Stop smoking
- Limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, sugar, and salt
- Lower high blood pressure
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Manage diabetes
- Reduce stress
- Limit alcohol intake
- Use medication if necessary
- Know when and if they are at risk of a heart attack.
Arthritis is a joint disease that causes joint pain and inflammation which can restrict movement. Arthritis typically occurs together with other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. This is one of the most common medical conditions among older people, affecting approximately one in five American adults. Arthritis is particularly dangerous for the elderly as it increases the risk of a fall and subsequent injury.
There are more than a hundred types of arthritis. The most common ones in older adults are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is a condition where the joint cartilage gradually breaks down over time, causing swelling and inflammation which lead to pain and stiffness of the joints. It is caused by wear and tear and therefore affects mostly older people. Unfortunately, this condition is often left undiagnosed until a fall causes a bone fracture.
Factors such as obesity, prior joint injury, as well as genetics can make the elderly susceptible to osteoarthritis. Women are somewhat more likely to have osteoporosis because they lose bone density more rapidly than men.
Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. It damages the lining of the small joints in hands and feet, causing a painful swelling that can result in the deformity of the joints. In addition to restricting joint mobility, rheumatoid arthritis may affect the entire body with fevers and fatigue.
- Joint pain, tenderness, and stiffness
- Inflammation in and around the joints
- Warm, red skin over the affected joint
- Weakness and muscle wasting
- Restricted movement of the joints.
Although there is no cure for arthritis, the condition is successfully treated with pain-relieving or anti-inflammatory medications, in addition to occupational or physiotherapy and lifestyle changes such as weight loss and exercise. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to correct joint damage and reduce the functional limitations due to arthritis.
Osteoporosis, also known as brittle bone disease, is another common medical condition that affects older people, particularly Caucasian and Asian women. Having osteopenia, or low bone density, is among the risk factors for developing osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis weakens the bones, making them more likely to break. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, around 50% of women and 27% of men over the age of 50 suffer hip and wrist fractures due to osteoporosis. This condition represents a serious problem for older adults as it may result in a loss of mobility and independence.
- A stooped posture
- Loss of height over time
- Bones that break much more easily than expected
- Back pain caused by a fractured or collapsed vertebra.
Certain medications, dietary supplements such as calcium and vitamin D, and weight-bearing muscle-strengthening exercises can help maintain bone health and combat osteoporosis.
Furthermore, to prevent and manage osteoporosis in the elderly, it is important to:
- Have knowledge about the condition and the existing treatments
- Undergo regular screening for osteoporosis
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain correct posture.
Cancer is a disease where cells grow uncontrollably to form a tumor. They may either cause the tumor to grow or spread through the body. Some types of cancer are more common in the elderly, for example, skin, breast, lung, colorectal, prostate, bladder, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and stomach cancers.
One of the biggest risk factors for developing many types of cancer is age. According to the American Cancer Society, over two-thirds of all cancer cases are diagnosed in adults over the age of 55. Although cancer survival rates have been on the rise for many years, they are generally lower for older people. That’s why it is very important to notice symptoms and begin treatment as early on as possible.
- Fatigue or extreme tiredness that doesn’t get better with rest
- Weight gain or loss of more than 10 pounds without a known reason
- Lack of appetite, trouble swallowing, stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Swelling or lumps anywhere in the body
- Pain, especially new or for an unknown reason, that doesn’t go away or that gets worse
- Skin changes such as a lump that bleeds or turns scaly
- A new mole or a change in a mole
- A sore that doesn’t heal
- Yellowish color to the skin or eyes (jaundice)
- Cough or hoarseness that doesn’t go away
- Unusual bruising or bleeding for no known reason
- Change in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea, that doesn’t go away
- Change in how the stool looks
- Bladder changes such as pain when passing urine, blood in the urine, or needing to pass urine more or less often
- Fever or night sweats
- Vision or hearing problems
- Mouth changes such as sores, bleeding, pain, or numbness.
Current cancer treatments include:
- Surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible
- Chemotherapy, a procedure that uses drugs to kill cancer cells
- Radiation therapy that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells
- Bone marrow transplant
- Hormone therapy
- Targeted drug therapy
- Cryoablation, a treatment to kill cancer cells with extreme cold
- Radiofrequency ablation, a pain relief procedure where an electric current is used to heat a small area of nerve tissue to stop it from sending pain signals
- Clinical trials or research studies of new drugs, procedures, and other cancer treatments.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia or the loss of cognitive functioning. This progressive disease is characterized by memory decline and difficulty thinking and problem-solving that interfere with everyday life. Older people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are at greater risk for developing disability and experiencing injury from falls.
Experts estimate that around five million Americans aged 65 years and older suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to age, the biggest risk factors are family history of the disease. People who have a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop the disease themselves.
Incorporating the following habits into the senior’s lifestyle may slow or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s:
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Getting good quality sleep
- Exercising regularly, both the body and the brain
- Maintaining social connections.
- Memory loss
- Poor judgment leading to bad decisions
- Loss of spontaneity
- Lacking a sense of initiative
- Taking longer to complete normal daily tasks
- Repeating questions
- Trouble handling money and paying bills
- Wandering and getting lost
- Losing and misplacing things
- Mood and personality changes
- Increased anxiety and aggression.
Aducanumab is the only FDA-approved medication that is currently used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. This is an intravenous drug that works by sticking to and removing a protein that builds up in the brain and causes Alzheimer’s.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the level of glucose in the blood or blood sugar is too high. This happens either because the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or the body is resistant to the insulin it produces.
Over time, high blood sugar may damage the eyes, kidneys, nerves, heart, and blood vessels. It may lead to health conditions like blindness, kidney disease, and nerve problems. People with diabetes are also more likely to have heart disease or a stroke at an earlier age.
The two most common types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease usually diagnosed in children and young adults, although it can occur at any age. Type 2 diabetes usually affects older people and is a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors.
- Frequent urination, especially at night
- Extreme thirst
- Unexplained weight loss
- Blurry vision
- Numb or tingling hands or feet
- Sores and wounds take longer to heal
- Extreme fatigue.
Although there is no cure for diabetes, it is possible to take steps to manage the disease and stay healthy. The main treatment for type 1 diabetes is taking insulin to replace the hormone that the body is not able to produce. A healthy diet and exercise can usually help control and manage type 2 diabetes. However, in some cases where lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to lower blood sugar, medications and insulin therapy may be necessary.
Respiratory diseases are a range of conditions affecting the lungs that make it difficult to breathe. These diseases are often more complex and more dangerous for seniors with weakened immune systems than they are for younger people. Around 15% of older adults suffer from a respiratory disorder such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Asthma is one of the most common respiratory diseases in seniors. It occurs when the airways become inflamed as the result of an allergic reaction to a trigger such as pollen or smoke, making it difficult to breathe. Asthma usually starts in childhood, but adult-onset asthma affects people above the age of 60.
Chronic compulsive pulmonary disease (COPD) is common in older adults who smoke. The condition causes shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. The best way to prevent COPD or slow its progression is to quit smoking and to avoid exposure to anything that can irritate the lungs, for example, secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, and dust.
- Chest tightness or pain
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing when exhaling
- Coughing attacks
- Coughing that produces mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble taking a deep breath
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Lack of energy.
Depending on the type of respiratory disease, treatments may consist of taking medications, using inhalers to facilitate breathing, and undergoing intravenous therapy.
Influenza and Pneumonia
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. Older adults with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of developing serious influenza-related complications such as pneumonia.
Pneumonia is a condition where the lungs can’t function properly because of the presence of fluid in the air sacs (alveoli). This disease is particularly dangerous for the elderly who are at higher risk for hospitalization, complications, and death due to pneumonia.
- High fever
- Shortness of breath
- A productive cough with phlegm
- Chest pain when breathing or coughing
- Urinary incontinence
- Lack of appetite
- Confusion or delirium.
- Symptoms of pneumonia are similar to that of the flu, but they usually last longer and are more severe.
Antibiotics can treat the most common forms of bacterial pneumonia, but the best approach for the elderly is to try to avoid infection in the first place. Essential preventive measures for people over the age of 65 with chronic illnesses include getting a pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine along with flu shots, hand washing, and extra care during cold and flu season.
Depression is a mental illness that causes persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, difficulty making decisions, and a loss of interest in activities that the person usually enjoys. Seniors who require home care and those who are hospitalized are at a greater risk of developing clinical depression. It is important to keep in mind that despite being prevalent among the aging population, depression is not a normal part of aging.
- Feelings of sadness and emptiness
- Anxiety, agitation, and restlessness
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and self-blame
- Angry outbursts
- Irritability and frustration over small matters
- Loss of interest in normal everyday activities
- Lack of energy and fatigue
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
- Reduced appetite
- Weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Slowed thinking, speaking, and body movements
- Sleep issues, for example, insomnia or sleeping too much
- Trouble thinking and concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
- Memory issues
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death
- Suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
Depression is a serious condition but a highly treatable one. Antidepressant medications and psychotherapy (also called talk therapy), or a combination of both, are effective for most people with depression. Hospitalization may be necessary in more severe cases.
To prevent or manage depression, it is important that the elderly:
- Stay connected with others
- Practice self-care
- Eat a healthy diet without artificial sweeteners and highly processed foods
- Limit the intake of alcohol and caffeine
- Exercise regularly
- Talk to the doctor about treatment options like therapy or medications.
Shingles is a skin condition triggered by the varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox. The virus remains dormant in the body and may get reactivated years later. Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles, but it is more common among seniors aged 60 and above. The infection typically causes a painful and very itchy rash on the face or body.
- An itchy rash
- Fluid-filled blisters
- Sensitivity to the touch
- Burning or tingling sensation on the skin
- Upset stomach.
The treatment for shingles include:
- Antiviral medication
- Pain medication
- Anticonvulsant medication (commonly used to prevent seizures)
- Calamine lotion with a cooling effect on the skin that can relieve the itchy feeling
- Mindful meditation.
It is recommended that everyone above the age of 60 get the shingles vaccine (Shingrix) as the most efficient way of preventing the condition and avoiding complications.
Medications and age-related chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease increase the risk of oral health problems in seniors. The most common issues include untreated tooth decay, tooth loss, oral cancer, and gum disease.
Untreated tooth decay
Statistics show that over 96% of adults aged 65 years or older have had a cavity and 20% suffer from untreated tooth decay. In addition, most older Americans take prescription and over-the-counter medications that may cause dry mouth and increase the risk of cavities.
Approximately one in five American adults over the age of 65 have lost all of their teeth. Dentures can affect nutrition because the elderly who wear them often prefer eating soft food that is easy to chew instead of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Cancers of the mouth (oral and pharyngeal cancers) primarily affect older adults due to lack of dental care and not following regular oral hygiene practices.
Gum (periodontal) disease
Elderly people with chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, heart diseases, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are more likely to develop gum disease, an inflammatory condition affecting the tissues surrounding the teeth.
- Tooth pain
- Deteriorating gums
- Bleeding or swollen gums
- Alterations in gum color
- Alterations to the tongue
- Growths within the mouth.
It is essential for seniors to brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, floss regularly, and clean their dentures daily.
Regular dentist appointments can help keep teeth healthy and prevent dental problems. Unfortunately, dental care is often difficult to access for older adults due to loss of dental insurance after retirement or economical disadvantages, making it more difficult to maintain good oral health.