Healthy Aging and Common Senior Health Conditions
People undergo many changes during the aging process, from graying hair to wrinkling of the skin. Some of these changes are harmless, but others can increase your risk of developing chronic health problems.
Although aging is a risk factor for several health issues, you can reduce your risk by exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco products, getting regular check-ups and limiting your intake of sodium, cholesterol and saturated fats.
The following guide provides an overview of some of the most common senior health conditions, explains the risk factors and provides senior health tips to help you prevent illness and injury as you age.
Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia
For older adults, memory loss is one of the most significant concerns associated with aging. In some cases, memory issues are a part of the normal aging process caused by physical changes in the brain. Due to these changes, it can take older adults longer periods of time to learn new things, and it may be difficult for them to remember things as easily as they did when they were younger.
Some people have memory loss caused by dementia, a senior health condition that causes a decline in cognitive function. According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. The disease is characterized by a buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain, which causes memory loss and behavioral changes. Amyloid plaques are clumps of proteins that build up between the nerve cells in the brain. As the disease worsens, people with Alzheimer's disease may have trouble thinking clearly, managing their finances or making personal decisions. As of 2020, approximately 5.5 million Americans were living with Alzheimer's-related dementia.
Several factors are associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Some risk factors are modifiable, which means you can change them by adjusting your lifestyle. These risk factors include smoking and leading a sedentary lifestyle. If you have heart disease, high blood pressure or another chronic condition, getting regular check-ups and taking your prescribed medications may help you reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
Some risk factors are non-modifiable, which means you can't change them by adjusting your behavior. A family history of Alzheimer's disease or dementia is one of the most significant non-modifiable risk factors. Even if you quit smoking, follow a heart-healthy diet and get plenty of exercise, you can't change the fact that someone in your family was diagnosed with one of these conditions.
Medicare Coverage for Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia
If a Medicare beneficiary develops Alzheimer's disease or dementia, Medicare may cover some of the costs of treatment, including physician fees, inpatient hospital care or a temporary stay in a skilled-nursing facility.1 Medicare Part D may also cover the cost of some prescription drugs used to slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Medicare doesn't cover long-term care in a nursing home.
Resources on Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia
The Alzheimer's Association funds research aimed at eradicating Alzheimer's disease and dementia.2 It also offers helpful resources for older adults who want to learn more about these health issues. The Help & Support page includes information on the signs of Alzheimer's disease, the stages of Alzheimer's disease and what older adults and their caregivers can expect as the disease progresses.
The National Institute on Aging offers a variety of fact sheets on Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia and other conditions known to cause memory loss.3 Older adults can also use the NIA website to learn about current dementia research and search for clinical trials.
Non-Alzheimer's Memory Issues
Several other forms of dementia can affect older adults. They include Lewy body dementia, vascular dementia and frontotemporal disorders. Lewy body dementia develops when a substance called alpha-synuclein builds up in the brain.4 The deposits, known as Lewy bodies, damage the brain cells, causing memory loss, behavioral changes, mood swings and problems with movement.
Vascular dementia develops when the brain doesn't get enough blood flow, which may be caused by diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or other senior health conditions.5 The symptoms of vascular dementia are similar to those caused by Alzheimer's disease, but people with vascular dementia don't have the amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimer's-related dementia. Certain risk factors increase the risk that someone will develop vascular dementia as they age, including obesity, smoking, high cholesterol and living a sedentary lifestyle.
Although dementia is one of the most common causes of memory loss in older adults, it isn't the only cause. Any of the following medical conditions can cause memory changes.
- Brain tumors and infections
- Problems with the liver, thyroid gland and kidneys
- Concussions and other types of head injuries
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies6
Excessive use of alcohol and use of some prescription medications can also affect your memory as you age.
Due to some of the changes associated with aging, older adults have a higher risk of developing depression. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 80% of older adults have one chronic medical condition, and about half have two or more chronic health problems.7 The stress of managing these health issues, along with social isolation and difficulty performing daily activities, make it more likely that an older adult will develop depression. Approximately 1% to 5% of seniors living in the community have this condition; the prevalence increases to 11.5% for hospitalized seniors and 13.5% for older adults who require in-home health care.8
The following risk factors make it more likely that an older adult will develop depression.
- The presence of a chronic health condition
- Female gender
- Poor sleep quality
- Social isolation or loneliness
- Family history of depression
- Personal history of depression9
Some seniors develop depression due to stressful life circumstances, such as the death of a spouse or diagnosis of a terminal illness. The risk of depression also increases in older adults who misuse alcohol or prescription drugs.
How Can Social Issues Affect the Life and Health of Seniors?
Several social issues become more common with aging, including loss of self-esteem, changing social and family roles, and a lack of strong support networks.10 These social issues increase the risk for depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues.
Medicare Coverage for Depression
Medicare may cover the costs of annual depression screening, individual or family counseling, psychotherapy, testing and partial hospitalization for severe depression.11 If you have Medicare prescription benefits, your plan may cover the cost of antidepressants or other medications used to control depression symptoms.
Resources on Depression
The National Institute of Mental Health provides a broad overview of depression, including the signs and symptoms, risk factors and treatment options.12 Several organizations provide support for people living with depression, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, Mental Health America and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: (800) 950-6264
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: (800) 826-3632
- Mental Health America: (800) 969-6642
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
Substance Abuse and Depression
Substance abuse increases the risk of developing depression, especially among older adults. In a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Conner, Pinquart and Gamble report that the lifetime prevalence of major depression exceeds 24% in men who are dependent on alcohol.13 Lifetime prevalence exceeds 48% in alcohol-dependent women. The association between depression and alcohol use is stronger in older adults than in younger adults, which could be due to the fact that many adults lose their sense of purpose once they retire and no longer have to focus on raising children or learning new professional skills.14
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration operates a national helpline for people who need help with substance abuse. If you'd like a referral, contact the SAMHSA helpline at (800) 662-4357.15 All calls are free and confidential.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, making it one of the most important health problems to address. Overall, heart disease kills nearly 650,000 people each year; although heart disease does develop in younger people, older adults have an increased risk of developing heart problems.16 One reason heart disease is more common as you get older is because the heart undergoes age-related changes. When you exercise or respond to a stressful situation, your heart can't beat as fast as it did when you were a young adult.17 As you get older, a substance called arterial plaque may also build up on the walls of your arteries. Plaque contains cholesterol, fat, calcium and other substances.18 Once the plaque hardens, it can block the flow of blood through the affected vessel, increasing the risk of stroke or heart attack.
Heart disease is more likely to develop in people with certain risk factors. Many of these risk factors relate to lifestyle, including smoking, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol use and the consumption of foods high in sodium, cholesterol and saturated fats.19 You're also more likely to develop heart disease if you have any of the following health conditions:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Medicare Coverage for Heart Disease
Medicare may cover screening tests to determine if you have heart disease or are at an increased risk for developing heart problems.21 Your Medicare plan may also cover the cost of treating heart disease or participating in cardiac rehabilitation if you've had a heart attack.22
Resources on Heart Disease
The American Heart Association offers grants for scientific research and provides information on heart health to laypeople of all ages.23 For more information on health issues that affect the heart, visit the CDC website to download fact sheets written for a lay audience.24
Because the risk of heart disease increases with aging, it's important to see a doctor regularly. If screening costs are a concern, ask your doctor if free screenings are available via a community clinic or nonprofit organization in your neighborhood. The American Heart Association recommends the following heart-health screenings:
- Blood pressure check at least once per year
- Cholesterol test every four to six years if you have no significant risk factors; more often if you have a higher risk of developing heart disease
- Glucose (blood sugar) test every three years
- Weight check at every regular health care visit
In addition to these screenings, you should also discuss your diet, activity level and tobacco use, if any, each time you visit your doctor.25
Medicare Coverage for Wellness Visits
Depending on the type of plan you have, Medicare may cover the cost of an annual wellness visit. During this visit, you and your health care provider will work together to develop a personalized plan to reduce your risk of senior health conditions.26 A physician or mid-level provider may also perform an assessment to determine if you have any cognitive impairment that could affect your ability to manage your affairs as you age. If your health care provider performs any additional tests during this visit, the costs may not be covered by Medicare.
Exercise continues to be important for older adults, as regular physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and a host of other senior health problems. Exercise also strengthens your bones and muscles, which can help you maintain your independence for as long as possible.
If you have diabetes, heart disease or another chronic medical condition, talk to your doctor before you start a new exercise program. Some senior health issues may limit the amount of activity you can do during an exercise session. You may also have to avoid certain types of exercise. For example, if you have joint problems, your doctor may recommend swimming or water aerobics to help you take advantage of the benefits of physical activity without putting too much stress on an injured joint.
The National Institutes of Health recommends incorporating four types of exercise into your routine.27
- Flexibility exercises to prevent stiffness and keep your muscles in good condition
- Balance exercises to improve your coordination
- Endurance exercises to strengthen your heart
- Strength exercises to help you get stronger
To make it more likely that you'll stick with your new exercise plan, pick an activity you enjoy. Dancing, swimming and hiking are all fun, but they'll also get your heart pumping and your body moving.
As you age, your metabolism slows down, which means older adults need fewer calories than younger adults.28 Your body also becomes less efficient at absorbing certain nutrients.29 As a result, you may need to increase your intake of calcium, potassium and vitamin D. Certain medications also interfere with nutrient absorption or cause you to excrete more of some nutrients than usual; for example, a diuretic called furosemide increases the amount of potassium excreted from the body.30 Furosemide is used to treat blood pressure, heart disease and heart failure. If you take any prescription medications, be sure to ask your doctor if you need to adjust your diet to account for nutrient loss.
According to the National Council on Aging, a nutritious meal includes lean dairy products, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.31 Although whole foods provide the greatest nutritional value, you can supplement whole foods with packaged products if you have a tight grocery budget. For example, frozen fruit is often less expensive than fresh, but it works just as well in a smoothie. Packaged foods can also be used to reduce the amount of prep time required to cook a meal. One example is using canned beans instead of dried beans. Dried beans are less expensive, but they must be soaked for several hours before you use them. In contrast, canned beans can be rinsed and used immediately.
Following these senior health tips can help you maximize your grocery budget while getting the nutrients you need to stay healthy:
- Reduce your sodium intake by flavoring your food with basil, oregano, chili powder, cumin and other seasonings instead of using table salt.
- Replace soft drinks and other sweetened beverages with water whenever possible. Many older adults don't drink enough water, leaving them dehydrated and at risk of developing serious health issues.
- Increase your calcium intake by drinking milk every day. If you don't like milk or can't tolerate it, try yogurt or hard cheese.
- Look for packaged foods that have been fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Vision and Hearing
According to the CDC, approximately three million Americans have glaucoma, a group of conditions that can damage the optic nerve and lead to blindness.32 Open-angle glaucoma, which is the most common form of the condition, occurs when fluid doesn't drain properly from the front of the eye. The excess fluid builds up inside the eye, causing internal eye pressure to increase.33 This increased pressure is what can damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss.
You may have an increased risk of developing glaucoma if you are African American or Latino; if you have a family history of glaucoma, especially if one of your siblings or parents has been diagnosed with the condition; or if you have heart disease or diabetes.34
Regular Medicare doesn't cover vision exams and other routine vision services, but it may cover some of the costs associated with treating glaucoma or another chronic eye condition.35 Medicare Part B may also cover the cost of an annual screening test if you have a high risk of developing glaucoma.36
If you'd like more information about glaucoma, the National Eye Institute offers free fact sheets in English and Spanish.37 The World Glaucoma Association maintains an educational website for anyone interested in learning more about the diagnosis, treatment and management of glaucoma.38 Information is also available for caregivers of older adults who've been diagnosed with this condition.
Cataracts are another common eye condition associated with aging. Each of your eyes has a lens responsible for bending light, making it easier to see. In healthy eyes, the lenses are clear. People with cataracts have cloudy lenses, which can make things look hazy or blurry.39 Cataracts are one of the most common senior health conditions, with the National Eye Institute estimating that more than 50% of Americans over the age of 80 are living with cataracts or have had surgery to treat cataracts.40
Although aging is one of the most common risk factors for cataracts, you may have an increased risk of developing the condition if any of the following apply to you:
- You have a history of eye injury, eye inflammation or eye surgery.
- You've been diagnosed with diabetes, obesity or high blood pressure.41
- You smoke cigarettes.
- You spend an excessive amount of time in direct sunlight.
As noted previously, Medicare doesn't cover routine vision care, but it may cover some of the costs associated with cataract surgery, as long as the surgery has been deemed medically necessary.
The American Optometric Association answers frequently asked questions about cataracts and has a database of nearly 30,000 optometrists.42 The AOA website provides resources that let you search for an optometrist in your area. Prevent Blindness also offers information on cataracts and other vision problems that increase the risk of blindness.43
Medicare Coverage and Medicare Advantage (Part C)
If you don't purchase a Medicare Advantage (Medicare Part C) plan that includes vision benefits, you'll typically have to pay 100% of the cost of routine eye exams, contact lenses and eyeglasses. Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) doesn’t typically cover routine vision care.
Some Medicare Advantage plans offer vision benefits, which may cover some of these costs, reducing your out-of-pocket expenses and making it easier to manage your finances.44
If you're interested in purchasing a Medicare Advantage plan, Medicare.gov provides information about plans available in your area, along with details about monthly premiums, deductibles and coinsurance amounts.45
More than 25% of Americans aged 65 and older have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.46 Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, develops when the body can't use insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body use or store glucose.
Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes
The following factors increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Excess weight/obesity
- Family history of diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Personal history of gestational diabetes (diabetes associated with pregnancy)
- High cholesterol
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
You also have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes if you're black, Asian American, American Indian or Hispanic.47
Medicare Coverage for Diabetes
Medicare may cover some of the cost of diabetes screening, education on diabetes management, foot exams and diabetic nutrition therapy.48 Part D may also cover insulin and other medications used to control diabetes symptoms.49 During your annual wellness visit, your health care provider may offer recommendations to help you manage your blood sugar and prevent diabetes complications.
The American Diabetes Association offers educational resources to help diabetics learn to live with this common senior health condition.50 Available resources include cookbooks, tips for exercising safely and statistics on diabetes. The CDC also has a diabetes education program designed to help adults with diabetes stay active, plan healthy meals and avoid serious complications associated with diabetes.51
Although breast cancer can develop in men, it's much more common in women. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation estimates that approximately 25% of women with breast cancer are between the ages of 75 and 84.52 By 2030, the BRF expects that most cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women between the ages of 70 and 84, making this type of cancer an important senior health concern.53
Aging affects the way you respond to chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, so it can be challenging to develop an effective treatment protocol. Furthermore, breast cancer isn't well-studied in older women. When researchers conduct clinical trials to assess new treatments, they often choose younger women to participate.54
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Aging is one of the most significant non-modifiable risk factors for breast cancer. Your risk of developing this disease starts to increase at the age of 50. Certain genetic mutations can also increase your risk, especially mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Other non-modifiable risk factors include having your first menstrual period before you turn 12, a personal or family history of breast cancer, having dense breast tissue and not starting menopause until after age 55.
Lifestyle factors can also affect your risk of developing breast cancer. You may have a higher risk if any of the following apply to you:
- You don't exercise regularly.
- You didn't have your first pregnancy until after you turned 30, or you've never been pregnant.55
- You take oral contraceptives or hormones to treat another medical condition.
- You drink alcohol frequently.
- You're overweight or obese after starting menopause.56
Medicare Coverage for Breast Cancer
Medicare may cover some of the costs related to cancer screenings, testing for breast cancer and the treatment of breast cancer. These costs may include inpatient hospital stays, temporary care in a skilled-nursing facility, home-health services, office visits and outpatient chemotherapy or radiation treatment.57 If your Medicare plan covers some of these costs, you may have to pay a copay or coinsurance.58 Services must also be deemed "medically necessary" to qualify for Medicare reimbursement.
Breast Cancer Resources
Beyond the Shock offers a place for women diagnosed with breast cancer to ask questions and support each other.59 The site also offers educational resources to help you learn more about breast cancer and how it's treated. The American Cancer Society may be able to provide financial assistance to individuals diagnosed with breast cancer.60 The ACS also provides educational resources on cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Menopause and Senior Health
Menopause occurs when a woman's ovaries no longer produce the hormones progesterone and estrogen, which causes her to stop menstruating. This typically happens after the age of 45, but it can happen earlier.61 Some women stop having their periods for a few months and then start again, so a woman isn't officially in menopause until she hasn't had a menstrual period for at least 12 months.62 Menopause typically causes the following symptoms:
- Spotting between periods
- Longer or shorter periods than usual
- Changes in menstrual flow (heavier or lighter bleeding)
- Vaginal dryness
- Sleep problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings
- Thinning of hair on the head
- Growth of hair on the chin and other parts of the face
The North American Menopause Society offers a variety of resources to help women learn more about what happens during menopause.63 The National Institute on Aging also offers a menopause fact sheet aimed at older adults.64
Like breast cancer, osteoporosis can occur in men and women, but it's much more common in women. In humans, the bones are constantly undergoing a process known as remodeling. During this process, the body makes new bone and breaks down old bone.65 Remodeling is necessary to repair bone damage that occurs due to the stress of walking, running, lifting heavy objects and doing everything else you do on a daily basis. The remodeling process is also necessary for ensuring the body stores the right amount of phosphorus and calcium.66
Osteoporosis occurs when the bones weaken because the remodeling process doesn't function as it should. Some people lose too much bone, while others don't make enough new bone tissue to replace what was lost.67
Osteoporosis Risk Factors
Many medical conditions can increase your risk of osteoporosis by interfering with the bone-remodeling process.68 Some of these conditions are listed below:
- Autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
- Gastrointestinal disorders that interfere with nutrient absorption
- Breast and prostate cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Kidney disease
Certain medications increase the risk of osteoporosis by accelerating the rate of bone loss. These medications include chemotherapy drugs, methotrexate, steroids, high levels of thyroid hormones and antacids that contain aluminum.69
Other risk factors for osteoporosis relate to age, family history and lifestyle. You have an increased risk of developing this senior health condition if you're over 50, have gone through menopause, have a family history of osteoporosis or have a small skeletal frame.70 Lifestyle-related risk factors include smoking, not getting enough exercise, consuming too much caffeine, a lack of calcium or vitamin D, excessive alcohol use and not eating enough fruits and vegetables.71
Medicare Coverage for Osteoporosis
Medicare may cover some of the cost of having a bone-density test, a tool used to screen for osteoporosis, if you have an increased risk of developing this condition.72 Medicare may also cover the cost of injectable drugs used to treat osteoporosis.73
For more information on osteoporosis, visit the National Osteoporosis Foundation website. The NOF has an online community for older adults who want to connect with others who have this condition.74
Prostate cancer develops when cells in the prostate, the walnut-shaped gland located in front of the rectum and between the penis and bladder, begin growing out of control. Prostate cancer is second only to skin cancer as the most common type of cancer in men, with approximately one in nine men expected to receive a diagnosis at some point in their lives.75
Most prostate cancers are classified as adenocarcinomas, which means they begin in the cells responsible for secreting prostate fluid.76 Prostate cancers may also be classified as sarcomas, small-cell carcinomas, transitional cell sarcomas or neuroendocrine tumors.77
Prostate Cancer Risk Factors
You have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer if you have any of the following risk factors:
- You're over the age of 50. Approximately 60% of cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed in men over the age of 65.78
- You have a family history of prostate cancer.
- You have mutations in one of the genes involved in prostate cancer, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2.
- You consume large amounts of red meat.
- Your diet is rich in fatty foods.
- You smoke cigarettes.
- You're overweight or obese.
- You've been exposed to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals.
- You have a history of prostate inflammation.
- You have a history of chlamydia, gonorrhea or another sexually transmitted infection.
Medicare Coverage for Prostate Cancer
Once you turn 50, Medicare may cover the cost of an annual screening for prostate cancer, including a digital rectal examination or prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test.79 Medicare may also cover some costs associated with the treatment of prostate cancer, provided the services you receive are considered medically necessary.80
Prostate Cancer Resources
The Prostate Cancer Foundation funds research to uncover better ways to prevent and treat prostate cancer.81 PCF's website also offers educational materials for men and their loved ones.
Just because you're getting older doesn't mean you can't maintain an active sex life; however, you do need to be aware of some sexual health issues that are more common in older adults. As you age, you have a higher risk of developing erectile dysfunction (impotence), which makes it difficult to achieve or maintain an erection.82
Some of the other changes associated with aging can also affect your ability to have intercourse comfortably. If you have arthritis, sore joints may make it necessary to use extra pillows or lie on a softer surface. Diabetes and heart disease can damage the blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the penis.83 Both conditions increase the risk of erectile dysfunction. If you've had a stroke, weakness on the affected side of the body may affect your movements; however, mobility aids can help you maintain an active sex life even as you accommodate the changes that have occurred in your body.
If you have any of these health problems, talk to your doctor about the best way to manage your symptoms and ensure you can enjoy intimacy as much as possible as you age. Making the following lifestyle adjustments can also help reduce your risk of erectile dysfunction:
- If you smoke, quit as soon as possible. Smoking can damage the blood vessels, restricting blood flow to the penis and making it difficult to achieve or maintain an erection.
- Follow a nutritious diet that limits the consumption of sodium and fatty foods.84
- Get plenty of exercise to increase blood flow throughout your body.
- Lose excess weight, if possible.
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
Parkinson's disease is a neurological order caused by the death or impairment of nerve cells in the area of the brain responsible for movement.85 The disease causes shaking, problems with balance, difficulty walking and a lack of coordination. In people 45 and older, the estimated prevalence of Parkinson's disease is 572 people for every 100,000 Americans, or approximately 930,000 people using 2020 population estimates.86
Parkinson's Disease Risk Factors
Age is one of the most significant risk factors for Parkinson's disease, with most people showing signs of the disease around the age of 60.87 Men are also more likely to develop this disease than women. You may also have an increased risk of developing Parkinson's disease if any of the following apply:
- You've been exposed to herbicides, pesticides or other chemicals used in the agricultural industry.
- You've sustained repeated blows to the head.
- You have a sibling or parent with Parkinson's disease.
- You were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.88
Medicare Coverage for Parkinson's Disease
Medicare may cover some of the costs of receiving treatment for Parkinson's disease, but only if the services are medically necessary. Your Medicare plan may also cover the cost of testing and visits with specialists while you're in the process of receiving a diagnosis.
Parkinson's Disease Resources
The Parkinson's Foundation pays for research intended to help scientists find a cure for this neurological disorder. If you recently received a diagnosis, you can sign up to receive the PF's free "Newly Diagnosed Kit," which is designed to help older adults with Parkinson's disease understand what they can expect.89