Harvard Health Letters
As we age, we all notice changes in our bodies, from our reflexes to our libido. But some physical changes aren’t a normal part of the aging process. “It’s important to know about them so we can do all we can to keep ourselves as healthy and active as possible,” says geriatrician Suzanne Salamon, M.D., an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Check out these common age-related health changes to see what’s normal and what’s not.
Normal vision changes: The lenses in the eyes become cloudy in later years. “As a result, older people need much more light to be able to see, read and avoid falling,” says Salamon. Also normal: impaired close-up vision and an increase in “floaters.”
Not normal: Loss of peripheral vision, which is a possible symptom of glaucoma; a sudden increase in floaters, accompanied by flashes, a sign of problems with the retina.
Next step: Schedule a comprehensive eye exam with an ophthalmologist.
Normal hearing changes: It may be harder to hear someone speaking, especially with background noise.
Not normal: When it sounds like everyone is mumbling, and you don’t hear the phone or the doorbell ring. Don’t ignore it. “Hearing loss can cause social isolation when people avoid gatherings because they can’t hear the conversations,” says Salamon.
Next step: Report symptoms to your primary care physician. A simple earwax buildup may be causing the problem. If not, the next step is a hearing evaluation with an audiologist.
Normal thinking-skills changes: You may misplace keys, forget someone’s name, or take longer to learn something new.
Not normal: Forgetting how to drive, cook, do your finances, or find your way home, especially when accompanied by mood swings and agitation. The cause could be as simple as a lack of sleep or a side effect from a medication. Or it could be an early sign of a disease that causes dementia.
Next step: Report symptoms to your primary care physician or make an appointment with a neurologist or a geriatrician for a memory screening.
Normal urinary changes: The bladder muscles get weaker, causing more frequent and more urgent need to urinate. In men, prostate enlargement may require nighttime bathroom visits.
Not normal: Frequent bathroom breaks that interfere with normal daily function or normal sleep patterns. “This needs to be checked out to make sure it’s not a bladder infection or an overactive bladder,” says Salamon.
Next step: Report symptoms to your primary care physician or make an appointment with a urologist.
Normal sleep changes: We spend less time in the deepest stages of sleep as we age. As a result, you may wake up feeling unrested.
Not normal: Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or falling back to sleep after you’ve been awake in the middle of the night.
Next step: Talk to your doctor or go to a sleep specialist. Get a physical exam to make sure there isn’t an underlying cause of sleep problems, such as a medication side effect. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day to improve your sleep-wake pattern.
Taste and smell
Normal taste and smell changes: Some diminishment may make it harder to taste food or detect strong odors.
Not normal: Diminishment that leaves food tasteless. “This can lead to less enjoyment of food, and as a result, poor nutrition and weight loss,” says Salamon.
Next step: Talk to your primary care doctor or make an appointment with a neurologist or an ear, nose and throat specialist. Often, loss of taste and smell is caused by sinus blockages, but it may signal a neurological condition.
Normal fatigue: You may not have the energy or endurance that you did when you were younger.
Not normal: A constant feeling of exhaustion. “This often is the result of diseases, such as heart problems or anemia, or medications,” says Salamon.
Next step: Report your symptoms to your primary care physician.