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Top health concerns for older people

Last Updated at November 11th 2021
As you age, you become more and more susceptible to developing diseases or disabilities that affect your overall health and wellbeing.

Key points:

  • Ageing can be a big risk factor in developing serious health conditions

  • The leading cause of death for people aged 65-74 is lung cancer, and the leading cause of death in people aged 75-84 was coronary heart disease

  • You should be getting regular tests for different health issues once you turn 60

Older man with his doctor
Keeping healthy and fit can help stave off a lot of chronic health problems that tend to pop up as you age. [Source: Shutterstock]

From 2017-2019, the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing (AIHW) found that the top leading causes of death in people aged 65 - 74 was lung cancer, for people aged 75 - 84 was coronary heart disease, and for people aged 85 and over the leading cause of death was dementia including Alzheimer's disease.

Additionally, AIHW research found that 60 percent of people aged 65 and over have two or more chronic conditions.

Older people more at risk of health concerns include people who are culturally or linguistically diverse, people who live alone or are homeless, and people who require assistance with daily living or housing.

Here are the top health concerns for older people and ways to reduce your likelihood of developing the disease: 

Cardiovascular disease

Heart health is so important throughout your life, even more so when you are older. Your heart doesn't work as well as it used to and can become more susceptible to heart conditions.

Some of these heart conditions can include, coronary heart disease (the biggest killer of men over the age of 65), high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), heart failure, cerebrovascular disease (including strokes), cardiac arrest, peripheral artery disease, and much more.

You have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases if you smoke, have high blood pressure, abnormal blood lipids (like cholesterol), diabetes, if you are overweight or obese, have a poor intake of fruits and vegetables, and/or don't exercise often. The more of these risk factors you have, the higher your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

Many people that have cardiovascular disease are more likely to have other chronic conditions, like diabetes or arthritis.

Every two years, you should try to have an assessment for cardiovascular diseases through your doctor. If you are at risk of a heart disease, your doctor will tell you how often to be checked.

Dementia

An estimated 472,000 Australians have dementia in 2021, and it is the leading cause of death in women.

Peak body for dementia, Dementia Australia, says that while dementia is common in older people, it is not a normal part of ageing.

Dementia is an umbrella term for cognitive degenerative diseases, which can include Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, Lewy body disease, and frontotemporal dementia. You can learn more about dementia on the Aged Care Guide.

It can also be difficult to diagnose because some of the symptoms may appear as other health conditions.

People with dementia may have affected behaviour, thinking, loss of memories, or difficulty with daily tasks.

Cancer

Older people are more susceptible to different types of cancer. The University of Melbourne states that one in two older Australians have cancer by age 85.

Common forms of cancer include colorectal (bowel) cancer, which is common among men and women over 65; whereas prostate cancer is common in older men and breast cancer is common in older women. Lung cancer is also the biggest killer of older people between the ages of 65-74.

While cancer can occur at any age, older people are more likely to develop it because the cells in your body are more likely to get damaged. Even though your body can repair this cell damage, in some cases that damage begins to build, resulting in cells multiplying and causing cancer.

It can be scary to be diagnosed with cancer, but the treatment for cancer is a lot more successful now than it was 30 years ago. Catching cancer in its earliest stage can often make treatment and remission very successful.

The Federal Government sends free bowel cancer tests to older Australians between the ages of 50-74. When you turn 50, you will receive an invitation to undertake a bowel screening test. You will receive another invitation for a test every two years after your last negative test.

Women over 40 can have a free mammogram once every two years and the Government will invite you to have a mammogram once you turn 50 every two years.

Older women should be getting a regular cervical screening every five years, and men should have a regular prostate specific antigen (PSA) test every two years once they turn 50.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Affecting a large number of older Australians, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease covers a range of lung conditions including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and chronic asthma.

Lung Foundation Australia says that older people may not realise they have developed COPD as early symptoms can easily be mistaken for signs of ageing, poor physical exercise, or asthma.

Generally, COPD is an obstruction of airflow to the lungs that can impact your breathing. Luckily, for some people, COPD can be reversible. Developing COPD can be caused by smoking, genetics, developmental factors, environmental factors, or other lung related conditions.

Older people living with COPD need to get regularly vaccinated against the influenza virus as well as other respiratory viruses.

People over the age of 45 are more likely to develop COPD and it is the third leading cause of death in older people aged between 65-74.

Diabetes

Older people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes as your body can increase its resistance to insulin as you age.

Diabetes can be a big issue for your overall health because it can contribute to developing other serious health conditions, like heart diseases, kidney disease, or dementia.

You may develop diabetes if you are overweight or obese, have high blood pressure, don't exercise or eat well, or have a family history of the condition.

Living with diabetes can have negative impacts on your organs, including damaging blood vessels, and cause issues with your kidneys, eyes, feet, and nerves.

Diabetes requires constant management through your later years, including checking blood glucose levels, insulin injections, diabetes medicine, or following healthy eating plans.

As things can become more difficult as you age, you may struggle to manage your diabetes without outside help from a loved one, carer, or paid help. If you require extra assistance at home, contact My Aged Care on 1800 200 422 to see what options are available to you.

The National Diabetes Services Scheme recommends getting your memory checked by your doctor once a year, as diabetes is linked to Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia.

Arthritis

There are over 100 different types of arthritis, which is the swelling and inflammation of joints. The most common types of arthritis in older people include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or gout.

Arthritis can have a huge effect on older people's health and wellbeing, as the condition can be very painful and also limit you physically.

Lifestyle factors and age are the main factors for developing a type of arthritis, and can appear in your fingers, toes, hips, knees, or any other joints.

You can manage your pain and movement from arthritis through different exercises, like swimming or walking, eating well, and medication for any pain or swelling. 

There are also a lot of modified devices available to assist you with everyday living, like automatic jar openers or modified cutlery, if your arthritis makes daily tasks difficult.

Reducing your risk of serious disease

While age does increase your risk of serious health conditions, there are some things you can do that are within your control.

All of these above issues have similar recommendations to reduce your risk of developing a serious health condition.

These include: 

  • Eating a healthy diet

  • Regular exercise

  • Keeping a healthy weight

  • Give up smoking

  • Reduce alcohol consumption

  • Manage any other health conditions (like diabetes, cholesterol, or depression)

  • Engage in social interaction

Leading a healthy lifestyle that encompasses all areas of your life can greatly reduce your risk for many diseases that older people become susceptible to during later years.

Regular tests

It's critical that you listen to your body when something feels wrong and go to your doctor for regular checkups or if there is a health problem of concern.

When you receive that bowel kit or reminder for a mammogram in the mail, don't leave it laying around but act on it because it may pick up problems early on.

When you get into your 60s, you should be doing regular testing for different health conditions.

Every year, you should be getting an eye check, a hearing test, going to your dentist for a check up, getting vaccinated for the flu, and having an osteoporosis assessment.

If you have skin cancer concerns, you should consider regular skin cancer checks as early detection is key. For those who are already at high risk, have a skin cancer check every six months.

If you have issues with your mobility, a falls assessment is a good opportunity to check if you are safe at home or require extra safety measures to be put in place.

What changes do you need to make in your life to lead a healthy lifestyle? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Allied health to assist with the ageing experience
The importance of elderly nutrition
Keeping your brain healthy as you age

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