The advent of humans living longer — sometimes into triple digits — has brought on a plethora of health problems that seniors must cope with. While some issues are remnants of past health choices, there are measures that seniors, and soon-to-be seniors, can take to mitigate future health concerns.
Dr. Steven Gambert is a professor of medicine and director of geriatrics at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He classified geriatric health problems into three categories: normal age-relatedchanges, age-prevalent diseases and diseases that present themselves in an atypical way.
“It’s usually the latter that causes most problems in older people who don’t even know they have a problem until later in the course of their illness,” said Gambert. “Any change in their usual state of health or function needs to be taken seriously. Older people should not dismiss [small problems] like it’s just a part of old age.”
He used the example that a heart attack can present itself as a shortness of breath or chest pain.
For age-prevalent diseases, Gambert emphasized that everyone — not just seniors — should be aware of osteoporosis.
“Any change in their usual state of health or function needs to be taken seriously. Older people should not dismiss small problems like it’s just a part of old age.”
— Dr. Steven Gambert, professor of medicine and director of geriatrics at the University of Maryland Medical Center
“Osteoporosis is a disease of the bones that happens when you lose too much bone, make too little bone or both,” according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation’s website. “As a result, your bones become weak and may break from a minor fall or, in serious cases, even from sneezing or bumping into furniture.”
According to the NOF, 54 million Americans have low bone density. One in two women and one in four men will break a bone due to osteoporosis, causing an estimated two million broken bones every year.
Gambert added that, if left untreated, the disease can cause respiratory failure due to the spine compressing and stopping the lungs from taking in enough oxygen. To prevent this, he recommended that people ensure they are getting enough calcium and vitamin D in their diets as well as speak to a doctor about bone density testing.
Dr. Robert Graw Jr. is the medical director at Righttime Medical Care, and he spoke to concussions, an issue that has received more attention in recent years.
“[We knew] people could hit their heads and could have problems but as far as jostling the brain around a bit, we didn’t attribute [many problems] to that,” said Graw. “[During] the last 10 years, researchers are finding the brain does not tolerate that well.”
He explained that when people age, they have less new cells being formed and the brain membranes are put under tension. Additionally, a concussion is defined by creating microscopic injuries that can’t be seen on an MRI or CT scan, meaning the damage may not be obvious to a physician. This damage can manifest itself in many ways, some of which are subtle such as not sleeping well or irritability.
Graw emphasized that the treatment for seniors who have fallen or tripped has become prescribed and that doctors “know what to do if [a senior] gets a head injury and how bad it can be, but the focus should be on preventing it.”
Another disease that has come to the forefront is cancer, but Dr. Martin Edelman, professor of medicine and director of solid tumor oncology at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center, believes seniors should be particularly vigilant.
“Cancer is the disease of aging,” said Edelman. “The older you get, the greater your chances are that you will develop a cancer somewhere.”
He said the most common cancers in the country are breast, prostate and colorectal. However, the cancer with the highest mortality rate, which is also his specialty, is lung cancer. The average age of lung cancer patients is 70.
In terms of prevention, Edelman said, “It’s never too late to stop smoking. That is the best thing anyone can do for their health.” However, he added, between 10 and 15 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are approximately 250,000 cases of lung cancer each year. (This means between 25,000 to 37,500 lung cancer patients are nonsmokers.)
The symptoms of lung cancer can be more difficult to detect as they are issues that often come and go such as aches and pains or coughing. Edelman said a persistent cough or coughing up blood isn’t inherently a sign of cancer, but when these common issues persist for an extended period of time then that is a signal to seek medical attention.
Gambert added that beyond understanding their own medical issues, one of the most important things seniors can do is share their medical histories with their family.
Said Gambert, “Tell [your] children and grandchildren; [people should] learn from [their] elders. Not just stories and knowledge, but also their medical history”