Common Medical Conditions in Older People
Advances in healthcare have helped people in the UK live longer than ever before. As a result, medical conditions have become a more pronounced part of older life. On the other hand, there is more support than ever for people living with these conditions.
It’s important for us all to understand the most common medical conditions so that we able to spot the symptoms and get medical assistance when we need it. Furthermore, we should understand how to prevent common illnesses and how to live with them.
Here’s our guide to the most common medical conditions affecting older people.
Arthritis is one of the most common medical conditions among older people, affecting 10 million people in the UK alone. It causes joint pain and inflammation which can restrict your movement.
There are two main types of arthritis: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Among older people, osteoarthritis is more common. This kind of arthritis is caused by wear and tear; the older we are, the more we have used our joints through our lifetimes. Around eight million people in the UK are affected by this type of arthritis.
Symptoms of arthritis include:
- Joint pain, tenderness and stiffness.
- Restricted movement of joints.
- Inflammation in and around the joints.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for arthritis. However, there are effective treatments such as painkillers and corticosteroids, which can help relieve the symptoms and slow down the condition’s progress.
Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in a joint. In the UK, around 10 million people have arthritis. It affects people of all ages, including children.” – NHS Choices
Hypertension – or high blood pressure – is incredibly common. According to the NHS, more than one in four adults in the UK have high blood pressure. However, many people won’t even realise it. The only way to find out is by having your blood pressure checked. Therefore, it’s very important to have regular check-ups with your GP, especially if you are in a high-risk group.
Noticeable symptoms of hypertension are rare. In fact, the only time someone will notice symptoms of hypertension will be when their blood pressure reaches dangerously high levels. This is known as hypertensive crisis. Symptoms of hypertensive crisis include severe headaches and anxiety, chest pain and an irregular heartbeat.
Hypertension puts significant strain on the blood vessels, heart, and other vital organs such as the kidneys. As a result, people with high blood pressure are at higher risk of the following serious medical conditions:
- Heart Disease.
- Heart Attacks.
- Kidney Disease.
- Vascular dementia.
- Heart Failure.
Here are some ways to prevent and manage high blood pressure
- Watching your diet – Avoid foods high in saturated fat and sugar. Replace them with fruits and vegetables.
- Leading an active lifestyle – Begin adding more exercise to your day. Start by walking regularly and then move onto jogging if you can.
- Stop smoking – Nicotine raises your blood pressure and heart rate. If you smoke, quitting is the best decision you can make for your health.
The NHS recommends that all adults over the age of 40 get their blood pressure checked at least every five years.
Asthma occurs when the body’s airways are sensitive to allergens and become inflamed. This inflammation can cause a painful and frightening asthma attack, which causes the airway muscles to tighten and narrow, making it hard to breathe. Most people can manage their asthma very effectively with proper medication. However, asthma left unchecked can be fatal. On average, 3 people die every day from an asthma attack in the UK.
Symptoms of asthma include:
- A tight sensation in the chest.
Older people are susceptible to asthma and should be on the lookout for symptoms, especially during the winter months. Asthma can worsen during and after a bout of cold or flu.
Around two million people are living with sight loss here in the UK, with 360,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted.
The leading cause of blindness is age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which affects more than 600,000 people in the UK. AMD occurs when deposits build up on the macula (a small area at the centre of the retina). It can also be caused by abnormal blood vessels developing under the macula.
Other common causes of blindness in the elderly are glaucoma, caused by pressure on the optic nerve, and diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy causes damage to the retina. Treatments for sight loss cary depending on the cause, but may include:
- Cataract surgery.
- Eye drops.
- Laser surgery.
Early diagnosis of potential blindness is vital, so please seek medical attention if you notice any change to your vision. Of course, we should all have regular eye tests to ensure that our eyesight is healthy. Specsavers suggest that people have an eye test every two years at the very least.
Sight loss can be very challenging to deal with. Luckily, there are several excellent support groups out there that can help – such as the RNIB.
Did you know that 1 in 2 people will develop a form of cancer at some point in their lives? There are over 200 types of cancer, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer.
Cancer is a disease where cells in the body replicate abnormally and form a mass known as a tumour. These abnormal cells multiply, either causing the tumour to grow or the cancerous cells to spread through the bloodstream.
Key symptoms to look out for include:
- Finding an unexpected lump.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Unexplained blood in the stool, urine, when coughing, or when vomiting.
Smoking is one of the leading causes of cancer. If you are a smoker, there is no time like the present to quit smoking.
Cancer survival rates have been steadily improving for decades. Sadly, the survival rate is generally lower for older people. Therefore, it’s very important to catch symptoms early and begin treatment as soon as possible.
6. Chronic Bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis is a condition which affects the lungs and airways. It’s one of several lung conditions which come under the umbrella of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
Most cases of bronchitis develop as a result of an infection which irritates the bronchi (airways), causing an overproduction of mucus. The body tries to shift this excess mucus via coughing. Chronic bronchitis is when this coughing continues daily for several months of the year for two years or more.
Look out for symptoms of chronic bronchitis which include:
- A sore throat.
- A runny or blocked nose.
- Aches and pains in your chest.
Smoking makes you more likely to develop chronic bronchitis and other COPD conditions. Therefore, the most important thing to do if diagnosed with chronic bronchitis is to quit smoking. Cigarettes will only make the condition worse and it will take longer to disappear. Alongside this, you should also ensure that you’re eating a healthy diet to help prevent lung infections in the first place.
If you have chronic bronchitis, you should make sure that you get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, and treat any headaches or fever with paracetamol or ibuprofen – don’t use the latter if you have asthma.
7. Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease is one of the leading causes of death here in the UK. According to the NHS, coronary heart disease (CHD) is what happens when fatty substances build up in the arteries, blocking the blood supply to the heart.
Certain lifestyle choices and other medical conditions can cause CHD. Risk factors include:
- High cholesterol.
- High blood pressure.
If you are at risk of CHD, your doctor might carry out an assessment. This could involve a treadmill test and one or more different scans. They’ll also ask you questions about your family history and lifestyle. The main symptoms of coronary heart disease are angina, heart attacks and heart failure.
In order to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, you might need to make important lifestyle changes. For example, everyone should take part in regular exercise and eat a balanced diet. Those who smoke should stop smoking as soon as possible. There are also several types of medication or surgery options to help treat CHD.
Dementia is a progressive disorder that affects memory and overall brain function. It is relatively common in older people, affecting around 1 in 14 people over 65. This increases to 1 in 6 people over the age of 80.
The most common and well-known form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Vascular dementia is another type of dementia that develops as a result of a stroke or blood vessel deterioration.
Symptoms of dementia include:
- Difficulty remembering recent events.
- Problems in conversation – struggling to follow along or to find the right words.
- Difficulty judging distance.
- Forgetting where you are or what date it is.
Nearly one million people in the UK live with dementia, 90% of whom are 65 or over. If you notice any of the symptoms above, you should visit your GP as soon as possible, especially if you are over 65. An early diagnosis will help you get the best results from treatment and give you more time to prepare for the future.
Older people are susceptible to developing diabetes. In fact, half of all people with diabetes in the UK are over 65. Diabetes is a lifelong condition, which occurs when the body doesn’t have enough insulin. This could be because the pancreas isn’t producing enough, or because the body is resistant to the insulin it produces. Diabetes affects an astonishing 3.9 million people here in the United Kingdom.
Type 2 diabetes is a growing problem among older people, and a large proportion of newly-diagnosed diabetics are from the older generation. In fact, one in 10 people over 40 are now living with the condition. To help prevent type 2 diabetes, the NHS encourages the following lifestyle changes:
- Healthy eating – Increasing the amount of fibre and reducing sugar and fat intake.
- Maintaining a healthy weight – If you are carrying excess weight, lose it gradually by eating healthily and exercising frequently.
- Exercising regularly – It is important to stay active; perform both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.
Epilepsy is a neurological condition that can cause seizures. Did you know epilepsy is most common in those at opposite ends of the age spectrum? It is most prevalent in young children and people aged over 65. In fact, 25% of people with epilepsy are over 65. Every day, 87 people are diagnosed with the condition.
Epilepsy can be caused by head injuries, strokes, tumours or certain infections. You’ll normally receive a diagnosis if you’ve had two or more seizures. This is because many people have a one-off epileptic seizure during their lifetime.
There are several medications which can help to control epilepsy. In fact, these medications help eight out of every 10 people with epilepsy to control the seizures. If you have epilepsy, you should follow these steps to manage your condition:
- Stay Healthy – Take part in regular exercise and eat a balanced diet.
- Sleep – Ensure that you’re getting enough sleep.
- Avoid Alcohol – Avoid excessive drinking.
Please remember that if you have a seizure and you currently hold a driving licence, you have a legal responsibility to inform the Driving and Vehicle Licence Authority.
11. Motor Neurone Disease
Motor neurone disease is a rare neurological condition where the nervous system degenerates over time. It leads to muscle weakness and loss of mobility. Motor neurone disease, also known as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), occurs when the motor neurons that control activities like walking and speaking stop working.
- Difficulty swallowing (and sometimes excessive drooling).
- A weakened grip, usually in one hand at first.
- Small twitches and flickers of movement, known as ‘fasciculations’.
- Difficulty speaking or slurred speech, known as ‘dysarthria’.
The causes of motor neurone disease are still unknown. However, we do know that it affects more men than women and that it occurs most often in people between the ages of 50 and 70. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for MND, but several treatments can minimise symptoms and slow the condition’s progress.
12. Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological condition that affects the brain and spinal cord. The main symptoms are a wide range of problems with vision, movement and balance.
There are currently more than 100,000 people in the UK living with the condition. The MS Society estimates that 5000 more people are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis each year. That’s approximately 14 people every day. This means that around one in every 600 people has multiple sclerosis (MS).
Symptoms of MS include:
- Blurred vision.
- Muscle stiffness.
- Balance problems.
- Difficulty walking.
Currently, there is no cure for multiple sclerosis, although research into possible cures is ongoing. In the meantime, there are a number of treatments which can help to control the condition. Treatment options will depend on the individual’s symptoms among other factors.
Osteoporosis is one of the most common medical conditions affecting older people. More than three million people across the UK have osteoporosis, with more than 500,000 people receiving hospital treatment for fragility fractures every year as a result. This condition develops slowly over time and is often left undiagnosed until a fall causes a bone fracture.
This is because osteoporosis is a condition that weakens the bones. Losing bone mass is a natural part of the ageing process, however, some people lose density faster than normal.
Women are more likely to have osteoporosis because they lose bone density rapidly in the first few years after going through menopause. Luckily, certain medications can help to strengthen the bones. Many people also take calcium and vitamin D supplements to maintain bone health.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, there are certain exercises that can help combat the condition:
- Weight-bearing exercises – Activities which involve moving against gravity whilst staying upright. High-impact examples such as skipping and tennis help to build bones and keep them strong. Low-impact examples such as using a stair machine or treadmill are safer alternatives for those with bone problems.
- Muscle-strengthening exercises – Activities which involve moving the body, weights or other forms of resistance against gravity. Examples include lifting weights and using elastic exercise bands.
14. Paget’s Disease of Bone
Paget’s disease of bone disrupts the normal cycle of bone renewal. It’s triggered by a flaw in the bone cell regeneration system, which causes bone weakness and even bone deformity.
Paget’s disease is a common bone condition that usually affects the pelvis, spine and other areas of the body. It is a very common condition in the UK, mostly affecting people over the age of 50. The condition affects 8% of men and 5% of women by the age of 80.
Symptoms include the following:
- Constant, dull bone pain.
- Shooting pain that travels along the body.
- Numbness and tingling.
- Loss of movement in a part of the body.
15. Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is a chronic and progressive condition which damages certain parts of the brain. According to the NHS, there are around 130,000 people in the UK living with Parkinson’s disease. That’s 1 in every 500 people.
The main cause of Parkinson’s is a loss of nerve cells in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. This leads to a reduction in dopamine, an important chemical in the brain. The condition is most common in middle-aged and elderly people. The most common symptoms to look out for are:
- Involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body (tremor).
- Slow movement.
- Stiff and inflexible muscles.
Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. However, there are treatments available which can reduce the symptoms and help those affected to maintain their quality of life for as long as possible.
Having a stroke can be life-threatening if you don’t seek medical attention straight away. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to a part of your brain is cut off. Without blood, brain cells can be damaged and may even die.
Strokes are particularly common among older people. The average age for suffering a stroke is 74 for men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For women, this is slightly higher, with the average being 80. Across the UK, strokes are a leading cause of disability, with around two thirds of all survivors being left with a disability of some kind.
It’s very important to know the signs and symptoms of a stroke. The sooner you get treatment, the better the outcome is likely to be. As mentioned, strokes can be life-threatening, so it’s important seek medical help as soon as possible. Memorise the signs of a stroke with the word FAST:
- Face – Has their face drooped or fallen on one side? Can they smile?
- Arms – Can the person raise both arms and hold them there?
- Speech – Are they speaking clearly? Or is their speech slurred or garbled?
- Time – Don’t waste any time! Dial 999 immediately if you notice any of these symptoms.
It’s absolutely vital to call 999 if you notice any signs of a stroke.
17. Chronic Kidney Disease
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is quite common among older people here in the UK. There are several other medical conditions which affect the kidneys and can lead to chronic kidney disease. These conditions include kidney infections, high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney inflammation.
According to Kidney Care UK, around 64,000 people in the UK are receiving treatment for kidney failure – this is stage 5 chronic kidney disease, where kidney function is less than 15%.
Unfortunately, symptoms for the early stages of CKD are quite rare. In most cases, the condition is diagnosed during a blood or urine test for other medical conditions. As the condition progresses, you may suffer from:
- Shortness of breath.
- Feeling sick.
- Blood in your urine.
- Swollen ankles, feet or hands.
If you suffer from any of the symptoms above or notice any other worrying changes to your body, you should see your GP as soon as possible.
There is no cure for CKD right now, but there are treatments which can relieve the symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening. Options include medication, living a healthy lifestyle, dialysis or a kidney transplant in severe cases.
18. Deep Vein Thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot in your deep veins, most commonly in one of your legs. This condition is most common in people over the age of 40, and can also lead to further complications, including pulmonary embolism.
There are a number of factors which can increase your risk of DVT. These include obesity, blood vessel damage, being inactive for long periods of time, and a family history of blood blots.
In addition, smoking can cause serious damage to blood vessels. To lower your risk of deep vein thrombosis and several other medical conditions, you should seriously consider quitting.
Here are the most common symptoms of deep vein thrombosis:
- Pain, swelling and tenderness in one of your legs.
- A heavy ache in the affected area.
- Red skin – particularly at the back of your leg, below the knee.
- Warm skin in the area of the clot.
- A mild fever.
One common treatment involves blood-thinning medication, which makes it harder for the blood to clot and prevents existing clots from increasing in size. Alongside your medication, you will also need to make some lifestyle changes.
Shingles is a skin condition which is very common among older people, especially those over the age of 70. This is because your body’s immune system becomes weaker as you age.
Shingles is caused by the same virus which causes chickenpox. Therefore, only those who have had chickenpox can develop shingles. The infection will cause a painful rash and/or blisters to form on your skin, which may become extremely itchy.
If you have shingles, the affected area will feel quite tender and you may experience sharp stabbing pains every now and then. Other symptoms include a burning and tingling feeling in the affected areas, as well as a high temperature and a general feeling of being unwell.
The sooner you see a doctor, the sooner treatment can begin. The NHS suggests using calamine lotion as this has a cooling, soothing effect on the skin and can relieve the itchy feeling. If your blisters are weeping, you can use a cloth or flannel which has been cooled with tap water to relieve discomfort.
People aged 70-78 are eligible for a free shingles vaccination with the NHS. This is the best way of avoiding the condition.
20. High Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty substance which is created by your liver and is also found in some foods. Lipoproteins in the blood carry cholesterol around the body. There are two types of lipoproteins: low density and high density. You might have heard of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol – ‘good’ refers to high density lipoproteins while ‘bad’ refers to low density.
High cholesterol is bad for your health. A number of lifestyle choices and medical conditions can lead to high cholesterol. These include:
- An unhealthy diet.
- High blood pressure.
- A family history of stroke or heart disease.
Age can also increase your chances of having high cholesterol, as the risk of your arteries narrowing is much higher. The best way to lower high cholesterol or prevent it in the first place is by living as healthily as possible.
This includes staying active by exercising or taking part in sporting activities, eating healthy foods, lowering your alcohol intake and trying to stop smoking.
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