Symptoms Seniors Can't Afford to Ignore

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on November 25, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP on November 25, 2014

Symptoms Older Adults Shouldn’t Ignore

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.

Your doctor should always check the symptoms listed here. Waiting can complicate or worsen an existing health condition. Even if you don’t think your symptoms are serious, your doctor needs to know. Unchecked symptoms could lead to disability or even death.

Unusual Shortness of Breath

While chest pain can be a telltale sign of a heart attack, it’s not the only one. Everyone’s symptoms are different and unique. For example, if you have to catch your breath after an easy walk, it could be an early sign of a partial or complete blockage of an artery that carries blood to your heart (coronary ischemia). Both a complete and partial arterial blockage can cause a heart attack. Make an appointment to see your doctor if you experience chronic or unusual shortness of breath. If you develop any additional symptoms like pressure or tightness in your chest, shortness of breath, or dizziness, seek immediate emergency care.

Sudden Speech or Balance and Coordination Difficulties

You may notice you are no longer as spry as you once were as you age. But if you find you now have trouble walking or experience extreme dizziness, and loss of balance and coordination, it may be a sign of a stroke. Additional worrisome symptoms include:

  • speech difficulties
  • slurring of words
  • changes in vision
  • weakness or numbness in your face, arms, or legs

Vaginal Bleeding After Menopause

You should see your doctor if you experience any vaginal bleeding after menopause.  While some cases of postmenopausal vaginal bleeding may be less serious than others, the bleeding could indicate a serious condition like cancer.

Erectile Dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction (ED) or impotence becomes more prevalent with increasing age. The National Institutes of Health estimate that about 17 percent of men in their 60s experience ED. As many as 30 million men in the United States experience ED. 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 response to increased stress or depression. Men may have a hard time talking to their doctors about this kind of problem, but treatment is available in most cases.

Constipation

Constipation can be troubling for several reasons. It can lead to excessive pushing and straining when trying to have a bowel movement. This increases your chances of developing hemorrhoids. While occasional constipation is normal and can be more common after age 50, it may signal something is blocking stool from properly exiting. This could be a tumor, a polyp, or some other obstruction. 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.

Bloody or Black Stools

Stool color can change daily based on your food and medicine intake. For example, iron supplements and diarrheal medicines like Pepto-Bismol may turn your stool black or tarry. Anything in the brown or green spectrum is generally normal, but black or bloody stool is often a red flag. Black stool suggests bleeding in your upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Maroon-colored or bloody stool suggests bleeding 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 your breast may be a sign of possible breast cancer. Other common signs of breast cancer can include swelling, tenderness, or breast discoloration. Breast cancer is treatable if caught early. Additional symptoms include nipple discharge and skin changes on the breast. Breast cancer is less common in men, but they should be mindful of possible cancer signs.

A Skin Lesion That Does Not Heal

The majority of skin cancers develop on skin areas 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 that seldom get sunned like under your toenails or in the genital area. The three most common types of skin cancer are melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of normal skin pigmentation.. According to the National Institute of Health, most skin cancer appears after age 50.

Never ignore skin lesions or moles. Those that are 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
  • 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
  • dark lesions on your palms, fingertips, toes, or mucus membranes (mouth, nose, vagina, or anus)

Symptoms of Depression

Older adults and their family members tend to focus on physical ailments, not emotional ones. Seniors are at a greater risk for depression because they face feelings of loss and loneliness more often. Emotional changes can come with a spouse’s death, a new health problem, or a general feeling of helplessness where 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
  • sleeping excessively

If you or a senior-aged family member experiences any of these signs, seek out a mental health professional. Without proper attention, depression symptoms and severity can worsen. 

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