As we age, we are more susceptible to developing an illness. Partly because as much as we hate to admit it, our bodies are older and struggle to work as well as they did when we were younger, and partly because of the years of ‘abuse’ we have subjected them to such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyles and environmental factors such as secondhand smoke and pollution. There are times when our genetics are to blame too! You can thank your parents for an increased risk of illnesses such as diabetes, strokes and some forms of cancer.
Whilst we cannot eliminate our risk of developing diseases we can reduce the risk by having a healthier lifestyle. A good diet high in fibre, low in sugar, salt and fats and full of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods combined with at least 20 minutes of exercise daily can go a long way to help reduce your risk of getting the majority of illnesses.
Whilst many diseases can fall under the category of common illnesses of ageing, I have picked 5 that I see the most often. This is not a definitive list and there are probably many more concise, inclusive lists available, however, this list is a good place to start.
5 Common Illnesses of Ageing
Whilst Dementia is NOT a normal part of the ageing process, it is one of the most common illnesses that we face with an ageing population. In 2017 there were approximately 50 million people living with the disease, worldwide. Using the current trends as a guideline, this number is expected to reach 131.5 million in 2050. Being aware of the signs and symptoms Dementia and knowing that it is not a common part of the ageing process can allow friends, family and members of society the opportunity to intervene early and hopefully put measures in place to help with the long-term treatment of the illness.
It is a common misconception that the only sign of Dementia is memory loss. Whilst memory loss can be a symptom of Dementia, it is not the only one. Memory loss can be temporary or long-term, it can be caused by medication, illness or in some cases, mild, short-term memory loss can be a part of the ageing process. Other symptoms that may be present in Dementia include:
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks
- Confusion with time and place
- Problems with language
- Poor judgement
- Misplacing items
- Inability to follow a specific routine – such as cooking a recipe
Unfortunately, there is no current cure for Dementia. There are some treatments that have some success in slowing down the progression, but there are varying degrees of success due to the fact that there is still so much that we don’t know about the brain and Dementia.
How to Prevent It
Currently, there is no way of preventing Dementia. The disease is complex and as a result, researchers are still trying to discover how and why the disease occurs and evolves as it does. What we do know is that is there has been significant research carried out which suggests that improving our lifestyles has a significant chance of reducing our risk of developing the disease.
Easy ways to improve our lifestyle and therefore reduce our risk of Dementia include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- A healthy, balanced diet
- Regular exercise
- Minimal alcohol consumption
- Smoking cessation
- Keeping a healthy heart (there is a link between cardiovascular health i.e. elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, untreated arrhythmias and developing Dementia, particularly Vascular Dementia).
Depression is something that we all know and understand. Getting to grips with our mental health, breaking down barriers and removing the stigma is very much a trending topic in society today, but for some reason, this seems to stop when it comes to the older members of society.
MentalHealth.org suggest that 22% of men and 28% of women over the age of 65 experience depression, yet it is estimated that 85% of these people are not receiving any treatment from the NHS. Why is this? Is it because we don’t recognise the symptoms? Or is it because we don’t understand that the triggers, whilst similar in people of a younger age, manifest in different ways.
Once we reach retirement age, some people are ready to take a break from the long-term stressors that have been associated with working for so many years. In fact, some people are happy to give up the daily grind and may have plans to travel, expand their skill base or just spend time with family. However, some of our friends and family may have put off thinking about this time due to not wanting to give up work and not feeling like they are of retirement age. Sudden changes can bring about a change in feelings, perspective (especially as we may begin to feel like this is the beginning of the end of the road in our lives) and our ability to cope.
Changes such as:
How to Prevent It
In older age, depression can be concurrent with illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease and it can also occur as a result of situations that you are experiencing such as a death, retirements and the ageing process itself. Self-care and mindfulness may sound like they are not for you, but in reality, it is just a case of taking care of yourself and putting your needs ahead of others.
Depression is not a ‘simple’ illness (although let’s be honest, there are very few simple illnesses) but there are simple ways to try and avoid it happening, such as:
- Maintaining activity levels through your favourite form of exercise
- Reducing the isolation that can occur after retirement or from the death of a spouse
- Recognising triggers that previously contributed to depressive episodes
- Continuing to take antidepressant medication and not stopping without discussing it with a doctor
- Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle which can help prevent illness which in turn can help prevent depression.
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease happens when plaque builds up along the insides of the arteries inside the body. The arteries are the major vessels which supply the heart with precious and life-sustaining nutrients such as oxygen and blood. The build-up of plaque narrows these arteries which in turn reduces blood flow to the heart. It can take years for the narrowing to become sufficient enough to block cause problems. Chest pain (also known as Angina) and shortness of breath can happen as a result of a narrowing. When a complete occlusion occurs, a heart attack can occur.
Damage to the coronary arteries usually begins with the innermost layer being damaged by factors such as high blood pressure (the increased force of the blood pressure can damage the artery), high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes and a sedentary lifestyle. Once the artery has been damaged, cholesterol and other fatty materials will adhere to the wall in a process known as atherosclerosis. The thicker the deposits, the narrower the artery will become.
As for most diseases, one of the most common risk factors for CAD is age. Unfortunately, the older we get, the more chance we have of having exposed our arteries to processes such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Family history and sex (males are at a higher risk of developing CAD) increasing your risk. The Mayo Clinic suggest that the following factors are what can cause use to develop CAD:
- Family history
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol levels
- High stress
With the exception of a few of the above factors, all of these are indicators of a poor lifestyle, however, it is important to note that there are instances where CAD is present in the absence of the above factors.
How to Prevent It
As with most of the illnesses that you will see mentioned in this post, there can be a simple way to help prevent you getting coronary artery disease, and that is by helping to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Reducing your weight, lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol and maintaining an active lifestyle will greatly help in reducing your risk of getting CAD. And of course, stopping smoking. Whilst it can be easy for a non-smoker to tell you to stop smoking if you need additional help in this area, or any of the other ways that are recommended for prevention, contact your primary care physician or practice nurse and they will be able to point you in the right direction
A stroke (also known as a Cerebrovascular Accident) happens when blood flow to a part of your brain is stopped due to a blood clot or haemorrhage. A stroke is considered to be a medical emergency. Immediate intervention is needed to protect the brain, ensure that the damage doesn’t become worse and to prevent death.
There are three types of strokes
- Ischemic – caused as a result of the vessels in the brain becoming narrow or blocked
- Hemorrhagic – caused as a result of blood vessels leaking or rupturing in the brain
- Transient Ischemic Attack – sometimes known as a TIA or mini-stroke. Produces symptoms similar to a stroke but doesn’t leave any lasting damage. A TIA can last as little as 5 minutes. You are a greater risk of having a stroke if you have a TIA so it is important to have any episodes checked out by a doctor.
The faster you are seen by a doctor when experiencing the symptoms of a stroke, the better the long-term outcomes are. But do you know what the signs of a stroke are?
- Trouble with speech and understanding
- Paralysis on one side of the body including face, arm and leg
- Issues with vision – can be present in one or both eyes
- Issues with balance and walking
If you suspect that someone is having a stroke, remember the acronym FAST as it can help determine which symptoms are present and quickly get medical treatment.
- Face – Ask the person to smile – is it equal or is one side of the face paralysed?
- Arms – Ask the person to raise both arms up. Is one arm unable to rise or begins to drift downwards?
- Speech – Ask the person to talk. Is there speech garbled/slurred/strange? Can you understand what they are saying?
- Time – If any of these symptoms are present, call the emergency services immediately.
How to Prevent It
The first step to reducing your risk of a stroke is by improving or maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A poor diet and sedentary life can lead to illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease which can all contribute to increasing your risk of having a stroke.
- Blood pressure readings of 120/80 or lower can help reduce your risk
- Well controlled diabetes and cholesterol levels
- Treating and maintaining a treatment plan for heart disease can prevent damage to the blood vessels in the brain, which in turn can reduce the blood flow
- Personal or a familial history of strokes can also contribute to an increased risk.
Knowing your risk factors for having a stroke and working to reduce them in the best way possible is currently the most effective way of preventing a stroke happening. Speaking with your doctor or practice nurse and putting a plan in place that will incorporate your current health issues and preventative measures can be a proactive way to prevent a stroke occurring or reoccurring.
Diabetes is a chronic illness where the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin (which is used in the regulation of blood sugars) or it cannot use the insulin that is produced effectively. It is a serious global health concern not only because of the rapid increase in cases – the WHO estimates that there were 108 million cases in 1980, which more than doubled by 2014, with 422 million cases reported – but due to the burden it puts on the health systems across the world.
Diabetes is an illness that causes damage to many systems within the body due to the blood sugars being uncontrolled. It can be normal to experience issues with kidneys, the cardiovascular system and the peripheral nervous system if you are you are diabetic.
There are 4 types of Diabetes
- Type 1 – the body produces NO insulin. Usually occurs in those under 20 years old but can occur at any age.
- Type 2 – the body becomes resistant to insulin or cannot produce enough. Usually seen in later life but is becoming more common in younger people due to the increase in cases of obesity. The most common form of diabetes.
- Gestational Diabetes – the body struggles to cope with the insulin blocking hormone produced by the placenta. Occurs only during pregnancy.
- Diabetes Insipidus – Is a rare form of diabetes that causes an imbalance of water in the body.
There is the suggestion that the ever-rising number of Type 2 Diabetes being diagnosed is as a result of the obesity epidemic. Being overweight definitely increases your risk of being diagnosed, along with leading a sedentary lifestyle, having a family history of diabetes and having high blood pressure.
If you experience an increase in thirst (it may feel like no amount of drink can quench your thirst), excessive urination (especially at night), cuts or wounds that are not healing or fatigue it is important to speak with your doctor about the chances of being diabetic. Testing is relatively simple and you can have the results within a day or two.
How to Prevent It
As we age, we are at a much higher risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes if we haven’t been caring for ourselves throughout our lives. It is thought that our dietary and exercise behaviours from a young age impact our body’s ability to cope with insulin and if we have a poor lifestyle then we are at a higher risk. However, not all is lost in later life because altering your diet, to include more fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods and reducing salt and fats can still help. Combine that with just 20 minutes of exercise per day and you can significantly reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes