Health: Age 65+

Although the average life expectancy is 79 for females and 72 for males, older adulthood can easily extend 20 years or more beyond these figures. As older adults age, most report increasing health problems. Even so, only about 5 percent of adults over age 65 and 25 percent of those over age 85 live in nursing homes, foster care (where elderly people live with a family licensed by the state to care for aging adults), or other long‐term care facilities. With medical advances and continued improvements in health‐care delivery, the older population is expected to increase in its numbers and report better health. Estimates are that within the next 30 years, one out of every five Americans will be an older adult.

Although most older adults have at least one chronic health problem, such ailments need not pose limitations on activities well into the adults' 80s and beyond. The most common medical concerns during older adulthood are arthritis and rheumatism, cancer, cataracts of the eyes, dental problems, diabetes, hearing and vision problems, heart disease, hypertension, and orthopedic injuries. Because the elderly are at greater risk of losing their balance and falling, hip fractures and breakages are particularly common and dangerous in this age group.

Contracting colds and flus can have especially serious repercussions for the elderly. This is due, in part, to the reduced capacity of older adults' body organs and immune system to fight disease. Unfortunate, but not uncommon, is the following scenario: An elderly person falls at home and breaks a hip bone, undergoes successful hip‐replacement surgery, and then dies two weeks later from postoperative pneumonia or other infections because of reduced reserve capacity and inability to recover from infection.

Inadequate nutrition and the misuse of medication also may be implicated in older adults who suffer from poor health. By the time adults reach age 65, they need 20 percent fewer calories than they did in their youth, but they still need the same amount of nutrients. This may explain, in part, why so many older Americans are overweight but undernourished. Additionally, cooking becomes a hassle for many older adults, and they find it easier to eat fast food, junk food, or nothing at all. Furthermore, many elderly unintentionally overuse prescription medication or combine medications that, when used together, produce toxic effects. As the body ages and potentially becomes more sensitive to the effects of prescription medications, drug dosages should be carefully monitored and assessed by a physician. Many elderly who have been hospitalized in near‐death condition begin to recover as soon as their medications are reduced or stopped.

Life expectancy can be prolonged through exercise. Older adults who have kept active, remained fit, and eaten wholesome foods throughout their lives tend to fare better than those who have not. This should be a lesson to younger adults who have an opportunity to modify their health habits early in life.

Dementia and Alzheimer's disease

The mental, emotional, and behavioral problems typically encountered by older adults are depression, anxiety, and dementia (mental deterioration, also known as organic brain syndrome. Poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, metabolic problems, and strokes may cause dementia, which affects 4 percent of those over age 65. (Dementia due to strokes is sometimes termed multi‐infarct dementia.) Older adults with dementia experience forgetfulness, confusion, and personality changes. Many people use the term senility to refer to dementia, which is incorrect. Senility does not have a precise or actual medical meaning; it is an overused and nonspecific term, like the word neurosis.

Similar in symptoms to dementia is Alzheimer's disease, an irreversible degenerative brain disorder that can affect as many as 50 percent of older adults over age 85 and eventually results in death. Early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include agitation, confusion, difficulty concentrating, loss of memory and orientation, and trouble speaking. Later symptoms include the inability to use or understand language, and total loss of control over bodily functions. Unfortunately, Alzheimer's is still a mystery to doctors and other scientists. In fact, the only certain diagnostic procedure for Alzheimer's disease is the analysis of autopsied brain tissue. The exact causes of Alzheimer's disease continue to elude researchers, although some suspect that genetics and malfunctions in enzyme activity may play a role.