Aging Parents: Spotting Health Problems
If you're a baby boomer, you know all too well the worries that accompany aging parents. Learn how to tell normal aging from potential health problems.
By Katherine Lee
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Baby boomers who notice changes in their aging parents may wonder what healthy aging really looks like — are the changes they see normal, or do they signal health problems that need to be evaluated by a doctor?
Healthy Aging: Signs to Expect
The aging process will slow down even healthy adults to some degree, though how much and to what extent depends on the individual. As we age, we will not be as quick, and our energy reserves will not be what they were when we were 20.
Even if an older parent doesn’t have any health problems and is experiencing healthy aging, she may still need some help with household tasks as she advances in age. “Even with normal aging, a parent may not be able to get through the day without some help,” says Sharon A. Brangman, MD, president-elect of the American Geriatrics Society and chief of geriatric medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y.
That said, the aging process should not necessarily cause problems in basic functioning. Outside of slowing down physically, people should still be able to balance their checkbook, maintain personal hygiene, and conduct routine tasks. If these activities of daily living are being successfully accomplished, you probably don’t need to worry too much.
Healthy Aging: Signs That Need Evaluation
If you see signs beyond some general slowing of physical function, it’s important to take an aging parent to a doctor — if possible, a geriatric medicine specialist — for an evaluation to uncover what may be causing noticeable changes. Any number of illnesses could be behind worrisome symptoms.
Increased fatigue and reduced energy may not seem like urgent health issues, but they should still be evaluated. For instance, fatigue and weakness can be caused by anemia, common in older adults, and can be treated. Weakness and shortness of breath can be signs of heart disease, even if your parent isn’t complaining of chest pain.
A normal condition in aging adults is having a less steady gait, a common result of the loss in muscle mass that naturally occurs with age. But that unsteadiness can lead to falls, which can be dangerous for aging adults who may easily break a bone or suffer a head injury. Signs of instability should be evaluated by a doctor, and the aging parent’s home environment should be carefully checked for hazards that could cause trips and falls.
Healthy Aging: The Challenges of Spotting Health Problems
It can be difficult to know when aging parents are experiencing health problems. Part of the problem is that, in many cases, aging parents won’t admit that something might be wrong, says Dr. Brangman: “They are afraid of being put somewhere. They may not want to move or be a burden to anyone.”
An adult child might miss the signs of health problems if she sees a parent all the time. “If you live close by and visit often, health problems may be tough to spot because some conditions such as dementia can occur slowly over time, like grass growing,” says Charles Foulks, MD, chair of the department of internal medicine at the School of Community Medicine at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. “That’s why it’s a good idea to ask your aging parents regularly about current events going on in the world.”
Adult children who do not see their aging parents often will be more likely to observe problems right away. “Some family members may talk on the phone with an aging parent and then come and visit for the holidays and realize that all is not okay,” says Brangman. “We often get calls from family who say they didn’t know it was so bad.” But while it may be easier for these baby boomers to spot a problem, they may not know which symptoms are cause for concern. For instance, an adult child may dismiss a parent’s forgetfulness as being an inevitable part of getting older, but that is not the case. “Memory loss is not a normal part of aging,” says Brangman.
Confusion or memory problems can be caused by medications. Many aging adults can have trouble keeping track of the many prescriptions, and an overdose can easily lead to mental and physiological problems.
Other warning signs to take seriously include:
- Changes in physical function
- Unexplained lost weight
- Social withdrawal
Healthy Aging: Other Signs That Cause Concern
Warning signs that an aging parent may be experiencing health problems may not only involve their physical condition, but also the condition of their home environment. The following signs could indicate an underlying problem that needs immediate attention:
- Empty refrigerator and cupboard shelves
- Neglected household repairs
- Household uncharacteristically in disarray
- Accumulating laundry
- Mounting garbage
- Soiled or unkempt clothing
- Stove, windows, and doors not properly shut
- Unpaid bills
- Unbalanced checkbook
If you are concerned about a parent’s health, arrange to get a doctor’s evaluation right away. “These types of situations do not benefit from denial and ‘waiting and seeing,’” says Brangman.
Video: Health Issues - Challenges of Aging
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