As technology and medical advancements continue at a rapid speed, developed societies like the United States will continue to see increasing populations of senior citizens. According to the US Census, the population of people over the age of 65 will be double in 2050 what it was in 2012. By understanding the unique health and wellness considerations of this growing demographic, family, caregivers, and senior living facilities can help maintain a high quality of life.


Changes in the Body as We Age

Benjamin Disraeli said “Change is inevitable. Change is constant.” We all know this inherently, but when our bodies begin to change or seemingly break down, it can be symbolic of our mortality. As we continue aging into advanced years, some of these physical changes become more dramatic and impact us more profoundly than at the start. During the aging process, some changes are simply normal signs of aging, while others may be symptomatic of a more serious medical condition.

As we age, the heart rate slows slightly and blood vessels become less elastic. This puts the heart under increased stress and can cause higher blood pressure. Bones become less dense and shrink, which is why there are more fractures and breaks in older adults. It also explains why people become shorter than they were in their youth. Digestive issues also become more prominent in seniors, including incontinence and constipation. Sometimes these digestive problems are related to other conditions common in the elderly, such as diabetes, menopause, or an enlarged prostate. Other times, these changes can be influenced by behaviors seniors are more likely to engage in, such as increases in medication, low physical activity, and decreased fluid intake and fiber. Some of the most noticeable physical changes in the body include lower muscle mass, higher body fat percentage, less elastic skin, wrinkles, age spots, and skin tags. Decreases in the body’s functionality—such as loss of sight, memory, energy, stamina, strength, and balance—can be more distressing than the superficial changes.


Understanding Dependency Ratios

One way to consider the care demands being placed on society is by calculating dependency ratios. A dependency ratio is calculated by dividing the number of people over the age of 65 by the number of people aged 18–65 and multiplying by 100. This number can tell us how much demand will be placed on the working population to support the elderly. A large dependency ratio indicates that a greater burden will be placed on the younger population to ensure individuals aged 65+ are taken care of. The US Census reports that from 1980–2010 the dependency ratio only increased from 19 to 21. Because of shifting demographics, the dependency ratio is expected to jump up to 35 between 2010–2030 . What this means is that it will require significantly more effort, resources, and money to support aging populations moving than it has historically.


Current Stats on Senior Health

To better understand this group, it’s important to first take stock of current health challenges, care gaps, and statistics. According to the CDC, of the seniors not currently receiving personal care, 6.7% still need some sort of care. Contrast this with fact that 44% of older adults have difficulties with activities of daily living. Today, aging seniors are expected to live on average another 20 years after retirement age. Despite improvements in life expectancy, health concerns for seniors are still great. Almost 22% of seniors report having a disability, with the most common being related to mobility. Aside from not receiving personal care, preventative measures (such as nutrition and exercise) represent a significant health need in this population. Only 12% of seniors reported exercising, and obesity has risen to a high of 35% in the elderly.


Most Common Health Problems in the Elderly

The leading causes of death among persons aged 65 and older are heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease. Some of the most common diseases in old age include decreased function and degeneration of the organs of the body. These are:

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Dementia

  • Parkinson's Disease

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • High cholesterol

  • Renal disease

  • Cancer

  • Anemia

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Osteoporosis

  • Thyroid dysfunction

  • Macular degeneration

  • Bowel incontinence

  • Dysphagia

  • Gum disease

  • Urinary tract infection

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Fatigue


Routine Medical Tests for Seniors

In light of these health concerns for seniors, staying up to date with medical visits and identifying problems early on can be one of the best measures to stay on top of health. These are some of the most common medical tests for the elderly:

  • Blood pressure

  • Cholesterol

  • Thyroid

  • Blood sugar

  • Weight

  • Mammogram

  • Pelvic exam

  • Bone density

  • Prostate exam

  • Colorectal screening

  • Vision and hearing

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm screening

  • Dental exam


Social and Psychological Factors Affecting Health

Social changes such as the death of a family member, friends, or a spouse can lead to health decline in seniors as well, and can lead to longer-term physical and psychological problems. Seniors find themselves more likely to live in isolation, leading to depression and self-neglect.


Safe Living for Seniors

Because of these physical, social, and psychological changes, family members become increasingly concerned with safety precautions for their aging loved ones, especially those living alone, because falls and injuries will only make any current ailments for seniors worse.


Safety Tips for Seniors Living Alone

  • Use a cane, walker, or shower seat as needed

  • Establish alarms, pill boxes, calendars, and other notices for medication times

  • Ensure that hearing aids and glasses are worn as required

  • Have caregivers, family, and friends check in often

  • Replace hardwood floors with carpets

  • Make sure all floors are clear of hazards, chords, floor strips or anything that might be easy to trip on

  • Avoid slippery or waxy hard-floor cleaners

  • Keep nightlights on for late night bathroom visits

  • Safeguard steps, inclines, and stairs with handrails

  • Avoid standing on ladders or chairs

  • Store heavy items on lower shelves


Nutrition, Exercise, and Socialization for Seniors

The benefits of empowering aging seniors by incorporating a healthy lifestyle cannot be overstated. Preventative measures can be a powerful way to help combat some unhealthy situations often faced by the elderly, including isolation, depression, and chronic diseases that negatively impact health.

Regular exercises for senior citizens has been shown to improve heart function by lowering blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease and improving overall blood flow. Another one of the most common disease seniors suffer from is diabetes. Exercise in the elderly helps manage overall weight, which can improve insulin sensitivity. Using resistance such as bands and low weights can increase bone density, which helps fight the common disease of osteoporosis, especially in women. Functional exercises for seniors will also have a positive impact on day-to-day life by improving balance, strength, stamina, and energy. Always under the supervision of a doctor, the general guidelines for senior workouts should be 3–5 hours per week, 30 minutes per workout, by reaching no more than 75% of maximum heart rate.  

Along with physical activity, developing a nutrition program with a doctor or nutritionist can be one of the most impactful measures for senior healthcare. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the elderly and is directly impacted by food intake. Saturated fats found in animal products increase the amount of low density lipoprotein in the body, which contributes to the hardening of the arteries, leading to higher blood pressure and greater overall stress on the heart. A quality, balanced, healthy diet for seniors, including fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and fiber, is suggested as the general dietary guideline for seniors. In addition to quality, quantity of food should also be considered. It is advised that, on average, seniors should eat between 1500 and 2000 calories in nutrient- and fiber-dense food each day.

The social needs of seniors should be intentionally identified and met in the same way exercise and nutrition needs should be. Arrange for social structures, groups, communication channels, and visits on a scheduled and regular basis to provide for your loved one’s mental and emotional wellbeing.


Health Educational Resources

The biggest step in achieving the best possible holistic senior health is by being literate in such matters. By educating yourself and your loved ones, and by talking to a doctor, nutritionist, or senior exercise specialist, you can have a dramatic positive impact on both the longevity and quality of life of your aging loved one. Remember to always consult a primary care physician before beginning any exercise or nutrition program.

To learn more about senior health, click on the following resources:

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