Most conditions affecting elderly Americans today are chronic conditions, meaning that the condition develops slowly over time, lasts for a prolonged period, and is rarely cured although symptoms may be controlled. Chronic disease is the leading cause of mortality worldwide, and 90% of the elderly population will develop a chronic condition. In the U.S., the leading chronic diseases among the elderly are respectively: hypertension, arthritis, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes. Another condition that closely follows these top five and is rarely properly diagnosed is depression.
Studies have shown that the risk for all of these conditions can be lowered by certain lifestyle changes. The best thing to do to decrease the risk of developing these conditions, or even control them, is to stop smoking immediately, drink alcohol only in moderation or not at all, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet. Moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women, and two drinks a day or less for men. Binge drinking 5-7 drinks once per week does not constitute moderate drinking. Making these lifestyle changes does not guarantee that an individual won’t develop a chronic condition but the individual will enjoy a better quality of life through having more energy, less stress, and more restful sleep. Continue reading about the top chronic conditions and common treatments below.
1. Hypertension - About 67% of elderly Americans will be diagnosed with high blood pressure in their lifetimes. High blood pressure contributes to the development of other problems such as heart disease and heart attack. Americans can help control hypertension with lifestyle changes and the use of simple blood pressure medications. Diuretics are the first line of treatment prescribed to treat hypertension. One diuretic that is low-cost and frequently prescribed is chlorthalidone. If the blood pressure is already moderately high or diuretics don’t work, ACE inhibitor drugs are recommended.
2. Arthritis – 50% of Americans over the age 65 will develop arthritis, or pain and inflammation in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is the result of an autoimmune response in the body and can be treated with different kinds of arthritis medications including antifolates and anti-rheumatics. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, and it can be treated with steroids and NSAIDs. These medications control symptoms but do not cure the condition. Steroid injections are commonly given to control pain and inflammation. A topical medication that has been proven to control pain and inflammation just as well as an oral NSAID with fewer side effects is called Voltaren.
3. High cholesterol – One third of all American adults have high cholesterol. High cholesterol is dangerous because it causes the build-up of plaque in the arteries and leads to coronary artery disease. The best thing to do to control cholesterol is to modify the diet and take a statin medication. Statins work by inhibiting an enzyme produced in the liver that is used to manufacture cholesterol. Around 70% of the body’s cholesterol is produced in the liver. Two cheap and effective cholesterol drugs are called simvastatin and atorvastatin.
4. Heart Disease – High blood pressure and high cholesterol are both contributors to the development of heart disease, the number one cause of death among Americans. Almost 30% of Americans over age 65 have heart disease. Depending on the individual’s reason for developing the disease, medications to treat it can be the same as those for high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Some medications that are used for both blood pressure and angina (chest pain) are called calcium channel blockers and beta blockers. A low-cost, effective beta-blocker medication is called metoprolol.
5. Diabetes – Diabetes also affects nearly 30% of Americans over 65. Diabetes can often be controlled with diet, lifestyle, and regular blood sugar monitoring. The most common type of diabetes is type 2 diabetes, which develops slowly over time as the body’s cells stop responding to the insulin that the body produces. Sulfonylureas are an effective first-line treatment for type 2 diabetes. If sulfonylureas stop working, they are often combined with a biguanide medication to increase efficacy. A low-cost popular combination of generic medications that controls diabetes for most people is glipizide and metformin.
Depression & Chronic Conditions
One last chronic and prevalent condition among the elderly that is worth mentioning is depression. It is difficult to calculate the prevalence because so many seniors go undiagnosed, but it is suspected to affect around 18% of American seniors. Depression is often mistaken for a symptom of many other conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, cancer, and many others, and it often goes untreated. Depression, if left untreated, can contribute to the development of other serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease, and can also lead to suicide. So many life changes for the elderly can cause grief and sadness, but normal grief goes away while depression persists for months and years. Tragic statistics from NAMI indicate that 20% of elderly Americans that committed suicide went to see a doctor or tried to get help the day before they died, while 70% tried the month before they died. Watch for signs of depression in loved ones and be sure that it isn’t ignored in lieu of another condition.
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