Caring Currents

Lack of Energy: Not a Normal Sign of Aging

Last updated: Sep 25, 2008

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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.