To Put This in Context:
Older adults face their own set of health concerns that become more prevalent with age. However, there are ways to prevent and treat chronic conditions and debilitating illnesses. A background in gerontology can give you the skills and knowledge to help.
Health concerns change as people age. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), about 80% of the older population deals with at least one chronic illness, and 68% have two or more. However, only 1% of federal funds spent on health are applied toward overall public health efforts.
Improving awareness about the following five health concerns for older adults could improve quality of life and life expectancy.
Heart Attacks Often Stem from Coronary Artery Disease
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), more than 42 million older Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reports that although heart attacks can result from several causes, the most common factor is coronary artery disease (CAD).
According to the NHLBI, CAD occurs when plaque builds up on arterial walls, restricting oxygen flow to the heart. Older adults can help prevent CAD by leading healthy lifestyles. The NHLBI offers several recommendations for older adults at risk for a heart attack, including the following:
- Quit smoking
- Eat a healthy diet
- Take medication if necessary to lower cholesterol levels
- Treat contributing conditions such as diabetes
- Limit stress and increase physical activity
Signs of a heart attack include the following:
- Chest pain or pressure
- Numbness in the left arm or shoulder
- Difficulty breathing
The AHA notes, however, that symptoms can vary based on gender. Additionally, nontraditional heart attack symptoms can appear, so patients should seek emergency treatment even if they don’t notice the traditional symptoms.
Diabetes Risk Factors Are Linked to Lifestyle Habits
In addition to heart trouble, the aging population also deals with diabetes. The American Diabetes Association reveals that nearly 25% of Americans age 65 or older have diabetes, and that the aging population may face more complications associated with the disease, including cardiovascular and microvascular issues.
Diabetes risk increases with age until 65, after which the prevalence remains static. This suggests that aging adults who develop healthy habits early in life may have a greater chance of avoiding diabetes altogether.
Diabetes symptoms include:
- Increasingly frequent urination
- Numbness or pain in the extremities
- Insatiable hunger
- Extreme thirst
The American Diabetes Association advises that early recognition can help prevent complications.
Stroke Risk Could Relate to Heart Problems
According to the Internet Stroke Center, stroke ranks as the third leading cause of death among Americans and is the largest cause of long-term disability.
One contributing factor is atrial fibrillation, which the AHA defines as “a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications.” According to the Internet Stroke Center, atrial fibrillation increases the risk for stroke by five times.
Signs of stroke include:
- Drooping facial features
- Arm weakness
- Difficulty forming speech
- Weakness on one side of the body
- Sudden severe headache
Dementia and Mental Health Deserve Attention
While physical ailments such as heart attack and stroke often dominate conversations about the health of the aging population, mental health is also a concern. According to NCOA, 25% of older adults suffer from some type of mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse rank among the most critical issues related to the aging population.
In addition, dementia can also influence quality of life. The Alzheimer’s Association reports the following:
- More than 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease will cost the United States $259 billion in 2017
- One-third of older adults die with some form of dementia
Signs of failing mental acuity include the following, according to Healthline:
- Short-term memory changes
- Difficulty with communication
- Listlessness and emotional disconnection
- Inability to complete normal tasks
- Inaccurate sense of direction
- Inability to cope with change
If you decide to pursue a gerontology degree, you could use your skills to help raise awareness about dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other aspects of mental health.
Osteoporosis Often Has No Symptoms
Unlike other health concerns facing the older population, osteoporosis doesn’t cause any serious symptoms or complications on its own. However, an older adult with osteoporosis could sustain serious fractures from falls. The NCOA reports that every 15 seconds, an older adult receives emergency room treatment for injuries resulting from a fall. In addition to broken bones, falls can cause traumatic brain injuries.
Education about osteoporosis and fall prevention can help prevent serious injury and illness. The NCOA reveals that falls are often linked to other chronic conditions such as failing eyesight and arthritis. Additionally, Healthline called osteoporosis the “silent disease” because it lacks symptoms until a person suffers a fracture, making awareness even more important.
Make a Difference in Gerontology
Knowing how to identify health concerns among the aging population is part of the core mission of gerontology. If you’re interested in using your professional experience to care for the aging population, a master’s degree in gerontology may help you to reach your professional goals.