7 Diseases That Sneak Up on Us as We Age

All Rights Reserved

As the years slip by, you're probably more aware than ever of the importance of good health. So you try to eat right, get at least a moderate amount of exercise, and banish unhealthy habits like smoking. But no matter how hard you try to be healthy, it's simply a fact that your risk of many key diseases rises as you age. And many of these conditions come on slowly and quietly, with few symptoms, at least in the beginning. Here, the top 7 diseases that sneak up on you as you get older, what to be on the lookout for, and what to do.

Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke

Often called A-fib for short, atrial fibrillation is a common age-related health issue, affecting 5 million Americans. The first signs of A-fib are usually a racing or irregular heartbeat and pulse. You might notice that your heart rate speeds up while you're exercising, or that it doesn't return to normal as quickly as usual afterwards. Some people feel dizzy or short of breath. A-fib raises your risk of stroke and heart attack, so it's important to get it checked out. An ECG is the most common test used to diagnose a-fib; your doctor may also order X-rays, blood tests, or an echocardiogram to evaluate your overall cardiac health. To help your heart maintain a regular rhythm and to reduce the potential for stroke, your doctor may prescribe medication. If needed, cardioversion may be used to reset your heart rhythm.

Type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes, which occurs when your body loses the ability to regulate blood sugar, can develop at any age, but the older you get, the higher your risk. If, like more than a third of all Americans, you're overweight or obese, your chances of becoming diabetic are significantly higher. A family history of diabetes is also an important risk factor. Unfortunately, many people are on their way to diabetes without realizing it. Recent studies show that one in four Americans over age 20 has prediabetes, with blood sugar that's elevated but not high enough to be considered diabetes. Symptoms of diabetes include feeling extremely thirsty, having to urinate frequently, and problems with your vision or wounds that don't heal. But most people find out they have diabetes or prediabetes from a routine glucose tolerance test.


Over time, the stresses and strains of constant movement lead to degeneration in the joints, particularly the larger joints such as knees, hips, spine, and shoulders. When the entire joint is affected, including cartilage, ligaments, and bone, this degeneration is called osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the definition of sneaky, coming on gradually and often not causing symptoms until significant deterioration has occurred. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting more than a third of all adults over age 65. But it can start much earlier than most people realize; almost 14 percent of those over 25 already have it. The good news is that joint pain isn't inevitable as you age; joint degeneration can be managed with pain relief, physical therapy, surgery, and other treatments.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is called the "silent killer" for a reason -- it develops oh-so gradually, typically with few signs until it's fairly well advanced. What happens is this: Fats and other plaques slowly build up in the arteries, causing them to thicken and stiffen, slowing blood flow and straining the heart. Coronary artery disease may be completely asymptomatic, though some people experience stabbing pains called angina, which prove a useful red flag. High blood pressure and elevated cholesterol are among the risk factors for heart disease that can alert you to get treatment. In men, erectile dysfunction is often a clue to heart disease. It's important to be aware that the symptoms of heart attack are often different in women than in men, and for this reason heart disease often goes undiagnosed for longer in women.

Macular Degeneration

Every year, 2.5 million Americans are diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration, loss of central vision caused by deterioration of the macula, or central portion of the retina. Your risk increases with the passing years; 12 percent of those ages 55 to 65 have macular degeneration, and by the age of 75, prevalence rises to 30 percent. If you begin to notice distortion, "floaters" or flashing spots, or blurriness in your central field of vision, it's time for an eye check. Other signs you might notice include double vision and difficulty distinguishing colors. Although exposure to sunlight and bright light is the primary cause of macular degeneration, genetics play a significant role, with light-eyed people at higher risk since blue, green, and hazel eyes let in more light. Studies have found those who smoke to be 2 to 5 times more susceptible to macular degeneration, because smoking blocks the absorption of the retina-protecting antioxidant lutein.

Lung Disease

If you smoke, you've been warned many times that you have a higher risk of lung disease, including COPD and lung cancer. But that doesn't mean you're safe if you're a nonsmoker; the risk of all lung diseases increases with age, regardless of smoking. Among the stealthiest of all killers, COPD commonly causes few or no symptoms until damage to the lungs is extensive. And the most common symptoms, such as chest congestion, shortness of breath, and a chronic cough, are easily confused with allergies or a cold. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 14 million people living with COPD who don't know they have it, in addition to the 16 million currently diagnosed. Lung cancer, which kills 1.3 million people a year, is equally sneaky, with most people diagnosed when tumors have already reached stage III or IV. For this reason, it's important to be on the lookout for early signs of COPD and all lung diseases. In addition to breathing issues, there are some surprising signs of lung cancer, such as fatigue, depression, clubbing or thickening of the fingertips, and breast growth in men.

Prostate Disease

It starts with problems peeing -- slowing, dribbling, interruptions in the flow. Then you may notice that you have to urinate more often, including in the middle of the night. What's going on: Swelling of the prostate, a tiny gland involved in sperm production, narrows the urethra, interfering with urination. A third of all men in their 50s and older will develop an enlarged prostate, officially termed benign prostatic hyperplasia. Less common is prostatitis, or inflammation of the prostate, which can also interfere with urination but in addition typically causes pain and irritation. The most serious prostate condition is prostate cancer, which today kills about 30,000 men a year. Prostate cancer strikes one in six men, most over the age of 65, and by age 80 more than half of all men will have some tumor cells in their prostates. Distinguishing symptoms of prostate cancer (in addition to those of other prostate conditions) include blood in the urine or in the semen, difficulty getting or maintaining an erection, lower back pain, and constipation and abdominal pain.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio