While it might be easy to ignore unusual symptoms or attribute them to your increasing age, the fact is they could be signs of serious health problems. Any of the symptoms listed here should always be checked by a nurse or doctor, especially if they complicate or worsen an existing condition. Even if you don’t think they’re related, your doctor still needs to know; unchecked symptoms could lead to disability or even death.
Unusual shortness of breath
If you believe that the only symptom of a heart attack is chest pain, you’re putting yourself at risk. While chest pain can certainly be a telltale symptom, everyone’s symptoms are different and unique. For example, if you find you’re having a hard time catching your breath after an easy walk, it could be an early sign of coronary ischemia, a partial or complete blockage of an artery that carries blood to the heart. (Both a complete and partial arterial blockage can cause a heart attack.) If you experience chronic or unusual shortness of breath, make an appointment to see your doctor. If you develop any additional symptoms such as pressure or tightness in your chest, shortness of breath, or dizziness, seek emergency care right away.
Find out about causes of shortness of breath.
Sudden speech or balance and coordination difficulties
As you age, you may begin to notice you’re no longer as spry as you once were. But if you find that you’ve suddenly developed trouble walking, extreme dizziness, or loss of balance and coordination, it may be a sign of a stroke. Additional worrisome symptoms include speech difficulties or slurring of words, changes in vision, and weakness or numbness in your face, arms, or legs (especially if it is happening on only one side of the body).
Vaginal bleeding after menopause
If you experience any vaginal bleeding after you’ve gone through menopause, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. No bleeding after menopause is harmless; while some cases of postmenopausal vaginal bleeding may be less serious than others, the bleeding could be indicative of a serious condition such as cancer.
Learn about potential causes of vaginal bleeding.
Erectile dysfunction (ED), or impotence, becomes more and more prevalent with increasing age; the National Institutes of Health estimate that 16.7 percent of men in their 60s experience ED, compared to only 1.2 percent of men in their 40s. After age 75, the number jumps to 47.5 percent. Besides the obvious concern for sexual satisfaction, ED can be associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other conditions. While there is usually a physical cause, ED can also be a bodily response to increased stress or depression. Men may have a hard time talking to their doctors about this kind of problem, but in most cases, treatment is available.
Constipation can be troubling for three reasons. The first: constipation can lead to excessive pushing and straining when you’re trying to have a bowel movement, increasing your chances of developing hemorrhoids. The second: while occasional constipation is normal, and can be more common after 50 especially, it may actually signal something is blocking stool from exiting properly—a tumor, a polyp, or some other obstruction. The third: ongoing constipation can lead to a hard stool that packs the intestine and rectum so tightly that normal pushing is not enough to expel the stool. This is called fecal impaction.
Learn about possible causes of constipation.
Bloody or black stools
Stool color can change from day to day, based on the foods you’re eating and medicines you’re taking. (For example, iron supplements and diarrheal medicines such as Pepto-Bismol may turn your stool black or tarry.) Anything in the brown or green spectrum is generally normal, but black stool or bloody stool is rarely okay. Black stool suggests you have a bleed in your upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Maroon-colored or bloody stool suggests a bleed lower in the GI tract. See your doctor to check for ulcers, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, and other GI conditions.
A swollen or discolored breast
A hard lump in the breast is often the first sign of breast cancer. But for both men and women, other common signs of breast cancer can include swelling or tenderness, or discoloration in the breast. While less common in men, breast cancer, if caught early, is treatable. Additional symptoms include nipple discharge and skin changes on the breast.
Read about other causes of swollen breasts.
A skin lesion that doesn't heal
The skin sins of your younger years may come back to haunt you; the majority of skin cancers develop on areas of the skin that are regularly exposed to the sun, such as the scalp, face, arms, hand, neck, and chest. But skin cancer can also develop in areas of the body that barely ever get sunned, like under your toenails or in the genital area. Skin cancer affects everyone. You ma be surprised to learn, in fact, that the largest numbers of melanoma diagnoses come to white males over the age of 50. Melanoma is one of three common types of skin cancer; the other two are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Never ignore skin lesions or moles. Skin lesions or moles that become painful, don’t heal, or ooze may actually be skin cancer. Other potential signs of skin cancer include a flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion, a pearly or waxy bump, a flat lesion with a crusted surface, a red nodule, a large brownish spot with dark specks, small lesions with irregular borders and parts that look red, white, or bluish in color, and dark lesions on your palms, fingertips, toes, or mucus membranes (mouth, nose, vagina, or anus).
Learn about potential causes of skin lesions.
Symptoms of depression
Some people tend to focus on physical ailments, not emotional ones, in elderly family members. But seniors are at a greater risk for depression because they face feelings of loss and loneliness more often. Emotional changes can come with the loss of a spouse or friends, after learning of a new health problem, or with a general feeling of helplessness as activities they once enjoyed are now harder or almost impossible. Symptoms of depression include sadness, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, unusual fatigue, a decreased interest in formerly enjoyable activities, changes in appetite, loss of sleep, or sleeping excessively.
Get in depth information on these symptoms and more by visiting the Depression Learning Center.