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We may understand - in theory - that our bodies will continue to change as we get older. But suddenly noticing that our bodies are different now can come as a unwelcome surprise. Subtle physiological changes can add up until they're not so subtle anymore.
While everyone's experience is unique, knowing about the most common ways our bodies tend to change as we age can make those surprising differences less of a shock or a problem.
Too Dry, Too Hot, or Too Cold
The older we get, the less we are able to tolerate temperatures that are too hot ot too cold.
Dehydration and overheating can cause serious problems for seniors; and for several reasons, it can be harder to tell that we're getting dehydrated. Older bodies can sweat less than they used to, and changing taste buds can mask thirst. Even healthy senior bodies tend to have less fluid reserves. Commonly-used medications (for high blood pressure, diabetes, or allergies among others) work by flushing out extra fluid, making it easier to get dehydrated when it's hot or at high altitudes. Chronic dehydration has been linked to urinary tract infections (UTIs), falls, and even cardiac problems - it's no small concern.
When caring for someone who has mobility problems, or is worried about incontinence, it's important to encourage them to continue to drink to stay hydrated (and to help with their bathroom concerns), especially when they're in a care facility. Also, people with dementia may literally forget to drink. For some coping and preventative strategies, see:
High temperatures can bring on heat exhaustion, heat stress, or heat stroke - and older adults are more susceptible to those, for the same reasons. If someone is experiencing many of the same symptoms of dehydration but is also overheated, either sweating heavily or not sweating enough, or has muscle cramps, throbbing headache, or nausea, follow this advice:
While Santa Clara County doesn't have as extremely low temperatures as other parts of the United States, cold weather is still a concern. And the same body changes that make older adults more vulnerable to dehydration or heatstroke in hot weather can make them more vulnerable to hypothermia. Warning signs of hypothermia (in addition to feeling chilled) include cold feet and hands, slow or slurred speech, sleepiness, shallow breathing, stiff or jerky movements.
Staying as active as possible is so important to age well - but exercise should be weather-safe.
Most people's eyesight will change in later life. Our eyes have a harder time focusing at near distances, and we can get eyestrain more frequently. Changes in the shape of the eye can make us farsighted (also called presbyopia). Over the counter magnifying reading glasses or eyeglass prescriptions for single- or multi-focal lenses are the most common solutions.
It's worth paying attention to our sight and our hearing, and worth taking steps to improve or preserve them. Sensory loss from poor vision and /or poor hearing increases risk for dementia, including Alzheimer's dementia.
Cataracts are a painless discoloration of the eye's lens that progressively effects vision. One of the most common causes of blindness, they are extremely common in older eyes, as the National Eye Institute explains: "The risk of cataract increases with each decade of life starting around age 40" and by age 80, between 50-70% of the population have it. Luckily, outpatient surgery can correct cataracts.
Floaters (dark specks that mysteriously move through our field of vision) can happen at any age, but can be a side effect of cataract surgery. If they appear suddenly, they can also be a sign of other, dangerous, conditions - do see an ophthalmologist to get them checked out asap.
How's your hearing? (What did you say?)
Hearing loss is another common issue for older adults: the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that one-third of people 65-74 have it, and roughly half the people 75 or older.
This Vision and Hearing Loss Simulator gives a sense of what it may be like to live with mild to profound hearing loss or with different types of tinnitus.
It's not just a matter of whether you need to turn up the volume. Poor hearing and/or poor vision (sensory loss) increase isolation and other risks for dementia, including Alzheimer's dementia.
Usually hearing loss is treated with hearing aids. However, those are rarely covered by health insurance, and can be expensive. Check the buying guides linked below and talk with your health care team to find the best solution; also ask around for programs that subsidize or help to pay for them.
When Should Someone Stop Driving?
Most Americans consider driving a car a necessity - but many senior drivers are not safe. The longer one stays driving after about age 60, the more likely they are to cause - or be involved in - an accident. Older adults are often more likely to be injured in an accident, too.
The California DMV has safety guides for older drivers in both English & Spanish:
Being able to drive is crucially important to be able to to live independently. Driving safely, however, depends on good vision, reaction time, physical abilities, attention span, memory and cognition - which can all change as we age. Medications often make drivers unsafe, too. These additional resources can also help determine whether it's time to hang up the car keys for good:
If someone is open to planning ahead to give up driving (maybe after a scary near miss, or a new diagnosis or medication that makes it more dangerous to drive), these may be useful:
Changes to Other Senses (Taste, Smell, Touch)
Our sense of taste is directly connected to our sense of smell, and changes to one will also affect the other. A COVID infection isn't the only cause for loss of taste and smell - those could be caused by several different possible reasons.
Numbness or losing the sense of touch could have many possible causes. Some of the most common are neuropathies (nerve damage), especially to our hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy).
It's no surprise that our sexual responses alter as our reproductive systems change with age. But what may be a surprise is that losing intimacy and sexual response are not inevitable.
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