Bette Davis said it well: “Getting old is not for sissies.” No matter who we are — man, woman, rich or poor — we all grow old.
But the pace and precise way it happens varies from person to person, depending on genetic and environmental factors. While someone’s genetic makeup plays a huge part in determining his life expectancy, the quality of health care received and a healthy lifestyle are significant contributors to longevity.
Nonetheless, dealing with the aging process is a challenge, and when it begins, the impact is felt throughout the body — in the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, musculoskeletal, and immune systems. And while an individual can age and remain healthy, some ailments are directly linked to age-related change.
Those conditions include:
- Vision changes/cataracts
- Hearing loss
- Sleep changes/disorders
- Cardiovascular diseases and stroke
1. Vision changes/Cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration
Before an individual turns 50, his eyes have begun to change. As they age, the eyes become less able to produce tears, the retinas thin, and the lenses gradually turn yellow and become less clear. As aging progresses, the iris (the colored portion of the eye) stiffens, turns less responsive and it is more difficult to adapt to different light levels. The three most common ailments related to aging eyes are cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration.
A cataract is a clouding of the lens that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging. In a patient with the eye disease glaucoma the normal fluid pressure inside the eyes slowly rises, which can lead to vision loss or blindness if not treated. Age-related macular degeneration causes no pain but gradually robs an individual of his/her clear, central vision. AMD is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60.
2. Hearing loss
One in three people older than 60, and half of those older than 85 have hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Gradual hearing loss that occurs from aging is called presbycusis and is thought to run in families. NIDCD reports that hearing loss can also be caused by a virus or bacteria, heart condition or stroke, head injury, tumors and certain medications. Hearing loss hinders or prevents vital communication with family, friends and caregivers, banishing an individual to virtual isolation. This can cause frustration, anger and depression.
This chronic disease is an inflammation of the joints. The most common type is osteoarthritis, and although it can occur in any joint, it most often affects the hands, knees, hips or spine. The exact cause is not known. Although it occurs after considerable wear and tear on the joints (in older people and athletes, for instance), heavy “wear and tear” alone cannot cause it to occur. It is believed the disease runs in families.
4. Sleep changes/disorders
By the time an adult is 65 or older, their sleep-wake cycle does not work as well. Typical changes an older person experiences include getting sleepy earlier than usual, trouble falling asleep, not sleeping soundly and waking early. Alcohol, caffeine and smoking can wreak havoc on the sleep cycle, as can illness, pain or certain medications. The elderly are especially vulnerable to insomnia, a disorder that prevents sleep, sometimes night after night, which can lead to sleep deprivation.
Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea (can cause daytime sleepiness and worsen high blood pressure and heart disease), restless leg syndrome (may prevent falling asleep) and periodic limb movement disorder (can interrupt sleep and result in daytime sleepiness), affect older people and are treatable.
This silent disease is more common in women than in men, because they have less bone mass to begin with, tend to live longer and take less calcium and need estrogen to keep their bones strong. However, if men live long enough, they too are at risk. As many as half of all women and a quarter of men older than 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Risk factors for the disease include aging, a thin body and small bone frame, a family history of osteoporosis, taking certain medications, being a Caucasian or Asian woman and low bone mass.
An individual with osteoporosis is often unaware she has the disease until she suffers a broken bone, low back pain or develops a hunched back. The disease can cause the vertebrae to collapse, so the person may also get shorter over time.
There is no cure, so those afflicted must learn to manage the disease with nutrition, exercise and medication.
6. Cardiovascular disease and stroke
With age the heart becomes less efficient and must work harder to circulate blood throughout the body. Blood vessels lose their elasticity. The loss of elasticity, along with atherosclerosis (caused by hardened fatty deposits on the arterial walls), makes the arteries inflexible, which forces the heart to work harder. This process leads to high blood pressure.
High blood pressure, along with atherosclerosis and uncontrolled diabetes (see below) are two major risk factors for stroke. A stroke can occur without warning and cause temporary or permanent brain damage and related loss of bodily function(s), depending on the area of the brain where the blockage occurs.
Thought at one time to be part of the normal aging process, cardiovascular disease and stroke are two disease processes that are now known to be influenced by lifestyle. Smokers, those who eat a lot of meat and fat and have high cholesterol levels are at high risk for this condition.
Nearly 17 million people have diabetes in the U.S. today, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The blood sugar levels of a person with diabetes are too high. The disease prevents the body from producing any insulin (Type 1); or, the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin (Type 2). As a result, the glucose/sugar builds up and stays in the blood instead of being distributed to the cells. Nearly 95% of people with diabetes have Type 2, according to AAFP.
There is no cure, but people with diabetes can live a healthy life by controlling their glucose levels. This can be accomplished with good nutrition, exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and taking oral medications or insulin. Untreated, diabetes can lead to blindness, heart disease, nerve and blood vessel damage and kidney damage.
This disease evokes universal fear when mentioned, and while it strikes people of all ages, adults are more likely to get cancer as they age (even if no one in your family has had it).
According to the National Institute on Aging, cancer begins when cells in one part of the body become abnormal and begin multiplying. These extra cells form a mass of tissue called a tumor; as it gets larger it can harm nearby tissue and organs. The cancer can break away and spread to other parts of the body.
People over 50 should have tests on a regular basis to screen for specific cancers: breast cancer (clinical breast exam and mammogram); cervical and other cancers (pap test and pelvic exam); colorectal cancer (fecal occult blood test, sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy); mouth and throat cancers (oral exams); prostate cancer (digital rectal exam and Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA)); and skin cancer (skin exams).
NIH reports, “No matter what your age, the chances of surviving cancer are better today than ever before.”