Aging (Symptoms)

Although the risk of disease and disability clearly increases with advancing age, poor health is not an inevitable consequence of aging. 

Chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis are the most common and costly health conditions of old age. They exact a particularly heavy health and economic burden due to associated long-term illness, diminished quality of life, and greatly increased health-care costs.

Hearing and vision problems are also frequently encountered and are often thought of as natural signs of aging. However, early detection and treatment can often prevent, postpone, or lessen some of the debilitating physical, social, and emotional effects that these impairments can have on the lives of older people.

Mental disorders experienced by older adults may differ from those experienced by younger people, which can make accurate diagnosis and treatment difficult. For example, an older person who is depressed may be more likely to report physical symptoms such as insomnia or aches and pains rather than feelings of sadness or worthlessness. Many physicians and other health professionals may not provide effective mental-health care because they receive inadequate training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in older adults.

Furthermore, mental disorders represent a grave threat to the health and well-being of older adults. Older adults are disproportionately likely to die by suicide. Comprising only 13 percent of the U.S. population, individuals age 65 and over accounted for 18 percent of all suicide deaths in 2000. White men age 85 and older are especially vulnerable, with a suicide rate five times greater than that of the general population. Mental disorders can also negatively affect the ability of older people to recover from other health problems. Research has shown that people with depression are at greater risk of developing heart disease. Furthermore, people with heart disease who are depressed have an increased risk of death after a heart attack compared with those who are not depressed.

The occurrence of Alzheimer's disease (AD) is not a normal development in the aging process. AD is characterized by a gradual loss of memory, decline in the ability to perform routine tasks, disorientation, difficulty in learning, loss of language skills, impaired judgment, an inability to plan, and personality changes. Over time, these changes become so severe that they interfere with an individual's daily functioning, resulting eventually in death. While the disease can last from three to 20 years after the onset of symptoms, the average duration is eight years.

Alzheimer's disease affects as many as four million Americans. The disease usually begins after the age of 60, and risk increases with age. Most people diagnosed with AD are older than 65. However, it is possible for the disease to occur in people in their 40s and 50s. Research has shown links between some genes and AD, but in about 90 percent of cases, there is no clear genetic link. Early and careful evaluation is important, because many conditions, including some that are treatable or reversible, may cause dementia-like symptoms. Examples of such treatable medical conditions are depression, nutritional deficiencies, adverse drug interactions, and metabolic changes.

Being "down in the dumps" over a period of time is not a normal part of growing old. But it is a common problem, and medical help may be needed. For most people, depression can be treated successfully. Talk therapies, drugs, or other methods of treatment can ease the pain of depression.

There are many reasons why depression in older people is often missed or untreated. As a person ages, the signs of depression are much more likely to be dismissed as crankiness or grumpiness. Depression can also be tricky to recognize. Confusion or attention problems caused by depression can sometimes look like Alzheimer's disease or other brain disorders. Mood changes and signs of depression can be caused by medicines older people may take for high blood pressure or heart disease. Depression can happen at the same time as other chronic diseases. It can be hard for a doctor to diagnose depression, but the good news is that people who are depressed can get better with the right treatment.

Aging. Last reviewed 12/31/1969
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2007).
  • Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics
  • National Institute on Aging (2005).
  • National Alliance of Mental Illness.
  • National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
  • He W, Sengupta M, Velkoff VA, DeBarros KA (2004).  65+ in the United States: 2004
  • Public Health Service (1999). Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General
  • Social Security Administration (2004). Retirement Benefits