Most Common Chronic Illnesses & How They Affect Older Adults

Aging is a fact of life, and with it comes an increased risk of developing a chronic illness. Chronic illnesses are health conditions that last a year or longer. Some 80 percent of older adults live with at least one chronic illness.

Here is information about the four most common chronic illnesses in older adults.

1. High Blood Pressure

As you age, your arteries lose elasticity, becoming more resistant to the flow of blood. When your heart has to pump blood through rigid, narrowing arteries, your blood pressure increases. Consistently high blood pressure damages the artery walls. If left untreated, this can lead to serious complications, including heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure.

Signs & Symptoms:

Often called the “silent killer,” high blood pressure shows no signs or symptoms. It can only be detected using a pressure-measuring gauge, which is often part of a routine medical checkup.

How to Manage It:

• Work with your healthcare provider to create a treatment plan

• Frequently check and track your blood pressure

• Reach and maintain a healthy weight for your body

• Engage in some physical activity most days

• Limit your alcohol and sodium consumption

2. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that attacks the joints. As cartilage, ligaments, and joint lining break down, the bones start to rub together. Osteoarthritis is the second most common chronic illness in older adults after high blood pressure.

Signs & Symptoms:

• Pain, stiffness, tenderness, or swelling in your joints

• Popping or clicking sounds when you move a joint

• Muscle weakness around a joint

• Limited range of motion

How to Manage It:

There is no cure, but pain medication and anti-inflammatory drugs can help manage symptoms. In addition, exercises focused on balance, strength building, and stretching can help support and take stress off the joints.

3. Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease affects the heart and blood vessels. Coronary heart disease, arrhythmia, and congestive heart failure are all examples of cardiovascular disease. As plaque builds up along the artery walls, the arteries become narrower, making it more difficult for blood to pass through. This can lead to blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, or other complications.

Signs & Symptoms:

• Chest pain or pressure

• Shortness of breath

• An irregular or quickened heartbeat

• Dizziness or lightheadedness

How to Manage It:

• Exercise regularly

• Strive for seven to eight hours of sleep each night

• Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, beans, and whole grains

• Limit foods high in sugar, salt, and trans and saturated fats

• Quit smoking

4. Diabetes

Diabetes interferes with the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes, the type that is most likely to affect older adults, prevents the body from effectively using insulin—the hormone responsible for distributing blood sugar throughout the body—which can wreak havoc on the eyes, teeth, nerves, gums, and kidneys over time.

Signs & Symptoms:

• Blurred vision

• Frequent urination

• Tingling, numbness, or pain in the hands and feet

• Excessive hunger or thirst

How to Manage It:

Eating healthy, getting plenty of exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight will help keep your blood sugar in check. It’s important to keep tabs on your blood sugar levels throughout the day.

Source: Good Neighbor Script, June 2022

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