Top 5 Health Concerns of Older Americans (and How to Be Ready)

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It always pays to be proactive, especially when it comes to your well-being and that of those you care for.

"The best way to stay healthy -- at any age -- is to live a lifestyle that includes keeping your mind challenged and engaged, practicing stress resilience, eating a nutritious diet, and staying active," says Dr. Pamela Peeke, founder of the Peeke Performance Center for Healthy Living and senior health spokesperson for the National Senior Games Association.

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But Peeke notes that being able to quickly recognize the health concerns that could be present in your life right now is equally important. To help you spot and stop them, here's your guide to the top five health concerns that affect older Americans -- and what to do if you suspect you or someone you love may be at risk.

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Health Concern #1: Diabetes

Why it's serious: According to the American Diabetes Association, close to 27 percent of individuals 65 and older in the United States have diabetes. "The disease presents the aged with a domino effect," says Peeke. "Diabetes can lead to a seriously elevated risk for heart disease and stroke, falls, and multiorgan diseases and impairments, including loss of hearing and vision, as well as heightened risk for infection due to a depressed immune system and poor blood circulation."

What to look for: Spotting diabetes in the elderly can be challenging, since many of the classic warning signs (such as vision problems, increased thirst, and frequent urination) are common issues among the aged. Instead, it's smarter to stay aware of other signs such as confusion, sleepiness, depression, foot pain, sudden weight loss, or cuts and bruises that seem to heal more slowly than usual.

What you can do about it: Consult a physician immediately to have the person's blood glucose levels tested, but expect them to be tested twice -- each test taking place on different days -- for accuracy.

Health Concern #2: Memory and Emotional Well-Being

Why it's serious:"Alzheimer's and vascular dementia are the two most common forms of memory loss, both of which can greatly affect the emotional well-being of the afflicted, causing stress, anxiety, and depression," says Peeke. Alzheimer's -- the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. -- affects someone new every 67 seconds nationwide. "The odds of a loved one developing Alzheimer's doubles about every five years after they turn 65," says Peeke. "After 85, those odds change to about 50 percent."

What to look for: Having a loved one suffering from memory issues doesn't necessarily make them a candidate for Alzheimer's and vascular dementia. However, noticing significant impairment in at least two of the following areas are warning signs of dementia: memory, the ability to focus and pay attention, communication and language, reasoning and judgment, and visual perception.

What you can do about it: Scheduling an appointment with a doctor who can evaluate overall health is the first place to start. After that, you may be recommended to a geriatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist, or psychologist for further care, depending on what may be causing the condition.

Health Concern #3: Heart Disease

Why it's serious:"Hypertension, stroke, congestive heart failure, and heart attack limit the quality of life for the older population and are a major cause of death and disability," says Peeke. Approximately 90 percent of all Americans will develop hypertension over their lifetime, and one in three adults has high blood pressure. Sadly, many people aren't even aware that they have high blood pressure, which remains the single most significant risk factor for heart disease.

What to look for: Hypertension left unchecked strains the heart, arteries, and kidneys, which can lead to kidney, heart, and coronary damage; stroke; and other serious health issues. The problem: It has no symptoms (except in extreme cases), which is why monitoring blood pressure on a regular basis to ensure that it's within the normal healthy range of \<120/80 (less than 120 mm Hg systolic and less than 80 mm Hg diastolic) is vital.

What you can do about it: Anything above 140/90 places you or a loved one at a greater risk of experiencing some form of serious cardiovascular problem -- and if the numbers rise above 180 (systolic) or 110 (diastolic), seek medical treatment immediately.

But if the numbers fall within healthy ranges, you can reduce the chances of those numbers rising any higher by exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco smoke, eating a healthy diet (which includes limiting alcohol and sodium intake), and managing your stress levels.

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Health Concern #4: Disability

Why it's serious:"The majority of falls throughout the United States involve the older population and are the direct result of a lack of physical strength, balance, and flexibility," says Peeke. Because the body's ability to mend itself decreases as you age, a single fall can easily lead to a serious injury (and long-term disability) if you're not careful.

What to look for: A myriad of factors, such muscle weakness, poor vision, arthritis, and fainting spells, can make you more susceptible to incurring a disabling injury. Other situations include living in conditions that are less tidy, organized, and well-lit or taking medications that may impair your stability by causing excessive drowsiness, confusion, or even postural hypotension (a sudden drop in blood pressure).

What you can do about it: Ask a doctor for a risk assessment to determine if any preexisting health conditions or medications may be placing you (or your loved one) at a greater risk of falling.

Beyond exercise and improving your diet, you can also minimize your risk through simple actions such as donating footwear that doesn't fit properly, getting your eyes tested on a regular basis, and correcting any potential home hazards (such as loose rugs, dimly lit areas, or storage spots that may be too high to reach, for example).

Health Concern #5: Cancer

Why it's serious: According to the American Cancer Society, half of all men and one-third of all women in the U.S. will develop cancer at some point in their lifetimes. "The single greatest risk factor for developing cancer is aging, which is why regular screenings are so important," says Peeke. "However, about a third of cancers in the elderly are diagnosed only after an emergency trip to a hospital."

What to look for:"Early diagnosis -- when the most effective treatments are more likely to be options -- helps improve a patient's chance of surviving the disease," says Peeke. But what makes cancer difficult to decipher on your own is that, depending on the type, location, and size of the cancer, the disease can cause almost any kind of sign or symptom, from more severe (unexplained weight loss and skin changes) to less obvious red flags (such as fatigue, fever, and pain).

What you can do about it: Instead of waiting for a symptom to reveal itself, take the initiative to speak with a doctor about the types of screening tests that may apply to you (or a loved one) to detect cancers before they become symptomatic.

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Myatt Murphy

Internationally recognized writer Myatt Murphy has written more than 1,000 articles in his career, specializing in areas such as lifestyle and exercise, nutrition, wellness, and healthcare for more than 50 national magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens, Cooking Light, Delta SKY, GQ, Health, Men's Fitness, Men's Journal, Muscle and Fitness, Prevention, Self, and Shape. See full bio