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Symptoms Seniors Can't Afford to Ignore

Be mindful of your symptoms

Key points

  1. See a doctor if you’re experiencing sudden or unusual symptoms.
  2. Stroke symptoms, such as slurred speech or vision changes, can be subtle, but you shouldn’t ignore them.
  3. Keep tabs on your emotional health.

It’s easy to ignore unusual symptoms or attribute them to increasing age. This doesn’t mean you should ignore them, however. These may be symptoms of serious health problems.

You should see your doctor if you experience sudden or unusual symptoms, even if you don’t think they’re serious. Waiting to do so can be costly for your health.

Unusual shortness of breath

Chest pain is just one symptom of a heart attack. Symptoms can vary from one person to another. For instance, you may find that you have to catch your breath after an easy walk. For some people, this can be an early sign of a partial or complete blockage of an artery that carries blood to your heart, or 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. Seek emergency care if you develop any additional symptoms, such as:

  • pressure in your chest
  • tightness in your chest
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness

Sudden speech or balance and coordination difficulties

The symptoms of a stroke can be subtle, but you shouldn’t ignore them. Possible symptoms include sudden trouble with walking or a loss of balance and coordination. Additional symptoms include:

  • feelings of extreme dizziness
  • speech difficulties
  • the 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. Some cases of postmenopausal vaginal bleeding are less serious than others. However, the bleeding could indicate a serious condition, such as cancer, so it’s important to get checked out.

Erectile dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction (ED), or impotence, becomes more prevalent with increasing age. The National Institutes of Health estimate that about 22 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. ED often has a physical cause, but it can also be a response to increased stress or depression. Treatment is available in most cases.

Constipation

Constipation can lead to excessive pushing and straining during a bowel movement. This strain increases your chances of developing hemorrhoids. Occasional constipation is normal and can be more common after age 50. However, constipation may signal something is blocking stool from properly exiting. This could be a tumor, a polyp, or some other obstruction. Ongoing constipation can even lead to a hard stool that packs the intestine and rectum so tightly that normal pushing isn’t 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 antidiarrheal medicines, such as 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 an indicator. 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 if you experience bloody or tarry stool. They can check for the presence of ulcers, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, and other GI conditions.

Swollen or discolored breast

A hard lump in your breast may be a sign of possible breast cancer. Other common symptoms of breast cancer can include swelling, tenderness, or breast discoloration. Breast cancer is treatable if detected early. Additional symptoms include nipple discharge and skin changes on the breast. Breast cancer is less common in men, but men should nonetheless be mindful of possible cancer symptoms.

Skin lesions that don’t heal

The majority of skin cancers develop on areas of the skin that regularly get sun exposure, such as the:

  • scalp
  • face
  • arms
  • hand
  • neck
  • chest
  • legs

Skin cancer can also develop in areas that seldom get sun exposure, such as 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 skin pigmentation. Most skin cancer appears after age 50 according to the National Institutes of Health.

Never ignore skin lesions or moles. Skin lesions that cause pain, ooze, or don’t heal may be cancerous. Other potential symptoms 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
  • dark lesions on your palms, fingertips, toes, or the mucous membranes, which include your 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 more frequently face feelings of loss and loneliness. Emotional changes can come with a spouse’s death or a new health problem. You might feel helpless or find that activities you once enjoyed are harder or almost impossible to carry out. The symptoms of depression include:

  • sadness
  • anxiety
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • unusual fatigue
  • a decreased interest in formerly enjoyable activities
  • changes in appetite
  • a loss of sleep
  • sleeping excessively

Seek help from a mental health professional if you or a family member experience any of these symptoms. Depression symptoms and severity can worsen without proper treatment. 

Confusion, delirium, or memory problems

While a gradual change in memory is a normal part of aging, sudden changes in memory or the abrupt onset of confusion or delirium could indicate a more serious issue. Abrupt changes could occur due to:

  • a urinary tract infection
  • a reaction to medication
  • thyroid problems
  • dehydration
  • brain tumors
  • anoxia
  • other infections

All of these conditions are generally treatable. However, these changes could also be the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease or other progressive dementias. Be sure to see your doctor right away if you experience these symptoms.

Working with your doctor

It can be helpful to list your symptoms before your doctor’s visit. This can help you remember to ask any and all questions you might have about your symptoms. You should mention any medications you’re taking and any side effects you’re experiencing. This information will help your doctor provide you with the care you need.

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