Lack of Energy: Not a Normal Sign of Aging

Last updated: September 25, 2008

Mom routinely nods off in the rocking chair while she knits. Dad snores loudly on the sofa all afternoon while the TV blares. Just typical snapshots of healthy aging among the silver-haired set, right?

Wrong. Despite the popular misconception, feeling old and tired don't have to go hand-in-hand. And, according to a recent study in the Journal of Gerontology, when a senior lacks energy, it could well be a sign that trouble is brewing.

Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center found that almost 1 in 5 senior citizens report feeling so lethargic that they spend most of the day sitting on the couch. Such behavior, stress the researchers, isn't normal and warrants investigation.

Study subjects reported napping over two hours a day, waking feeling tired, or simply not having enough energy to function. Those who felt worn out reported more health problems, such as sleep disorders, cardiovascular complaints, arthritis, and other ailments that commonly afflict the elderly than those who didn't feel spent.

The study of 2,100 New York City residents between ages 65 and 104 also found that subjects who flagged fatigue as a problem reported twice as many hospital stays, emergency department visits, and home care services. A lack of energy was associated with a 60 percent greater death rate in the six years after the survey was conducted as well.

So here's a wake-up call: Don't ignore a loved one who complains of feeling weary. It could well be a red flag for heart and kidney disorders, arthritis, lung disease, anemia, depression, sleep apnea, or other age-related ailments.

A lack of energy (fancy-pants medical moniker: anergia) is the universal language by which the elderly talk about their health problems, explains study author Mathew Mauer, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University. "Instead of noting symptoms of pain or a depressed mood, many older adults feel more comfortable telling their physicians that they're tired."

That's probably how they communicate with us -- their caregivers -- too. So tune your antennae to pick up on when your loved ones say they're worn out. The good news is that for most complaints that can lead to listlessness, treatments are available. Supplements can cure anemia. Prescription pills or talk therapy can ease depression. Behavioral modifications may help your parent get a better night's rest. Drugs and other therapies can tackle chronic conditions. But, of course, diagnosis is key.

Mauer maintains that anergia needs to be regarded as a geriatric disorder along the lines of other age-related syndromes, such as increased risk of falling and memory impairment.

Makes sense, given how many old folks constantly feel wiped out. If seniors report exhaustion on a regular basis, make a doctor's appointment pronto. You may not get to the bottom of things in one visit. Persevere. For the sake of their health and well-being, it's important to tease out the underlying cause of your loved ones' lack of energy.

If their doc doesn't take your concern seriously, show him this post. No one wants parents who're too pooped to enjoy their twilight years.

Photo by Flickr user eflon used under the Creative Commons Attribution license.

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7 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

2 months ago

I am .73 years of age and I am always sleeping. I nap every time I sit down for a rest. I struggle with the housework and cooking, having to sit down in between jobs and invariably fall asleep. This tiredness is getting worse, to the point that I am too tired to go out. The doctor said I need to lose weight, which is difficult as I am always napping. Anyhow, I do not eat so much as I suffer from severe acid reflux. I have hypothyroidism but that is being treated with medication. I think eventually I will just sleep all day long and then die in my sleep.

over 2 years ago

My husband of 38 years was 21 years older than I. He had a heart attack at the age of 50, and subsequently developed diabetes, HBP, and had various surgeries for abdominal aortic aneurism, hernias, cancer in both his breasts, and many broken bones due to falls. Throughout all this he maintained his energy levels. But, in 2008,he began to feel exhausted and had no appetite.I tried everything to get him to go out and at least walk a little, but he was too tired. I also bought him marijuana, in hopes that it would increase his appetite, to no avail. Then, in 2009, he got much worse, and was hospitalized in March, and again in November. Two days after he got home in November, he had a hemmoragic stroke at home and was hospitalized for 2 weeks until he came out of the coma. He was moved to a nursing home, where he passed away from a blood clot. Had I known that his fatigue was not normal I could have advocated for him with his doctors. Thank you so much for this article! I am now helping to take care of my 85 year old friend, who is completely exhausted and weak. Thanks to this article I am now taking him to see his doctor to find out what is happening to him!

Anonymous said almost 5 years ago

My mom is 80 yrs old...has type 2 diabetes, atrial fibrillation (has had a dual lead pacemaker put in), high blood pressure, and depression. She has had numerous bouts of pneumonia 98% of required hospitalization. Plus a really bad infection in her colon, which we almost lost her from. She has low vision and diabetic retinopathy. She is constantly telling the heart doctor, her internal medicine doctor, and well every single doctor she has that she is tired all of the time, napping, no energy, etc. One gave her medicine for depression, another found she was anemic and treated that, and another has given her something to help her sleep at night. All doctors know what medications she is taking, but yet here she is constantly complaining of being tired, etc. and nothing more has been done or found. I don't know what else to do for her...I will be printing this article off and showing it to her internal medicine doctor at the next visit.

about 6 years ago

Thanks for sharing your three interesting -- and very different -- examples of excessive tiredness masking an underlying problem.

about 6 years ago

My father who just turned 90 has been going through this for about a couple of years - about the time he told me he'd been told he had a high platelet level and had been put on hydroxurea; he thought he would be taken off when his levels went down but the doc said he was now on it for the rest of his life for risk of stroke; however, I found out the risk is not the great (I do realize the consequences could be though if he did have one; but do we want to have this kind of life?) but he listens to the doc (or did until he quit; now he doesn't have one so we're waiting; in the meantime he's still taking the meds)

Anonymous said about 6 years ago

This is so important! My mom was uncharacteristically tired and napping a lot -- we didn't add it up. Figured, oh, getting old. By the time she collapsed from dehydration (and then got proper medical attention) it was too late. Inoperable cancer was diagnosed and she was gone within months.

about 6 years ago

My husbands parents moved in with us in March of this year. We have the same problem of napping a lot but still too tired to do anything. I approached my mother-in-law, Dot, about it calling it disappointment rather than depression. She said that she is very disappointed at not feeling well and not being able to do very much. We talked about that zapping her energy and appetite and she agreed but whether or not there will be any change remains to be seen. She has not been willing to admit to depression but calling it disappointment worked. Now we just have to fix it.

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