As years pass, all of us begin to notice changes, perhaps some aches, a tougher time remembering acquaintances’ names, or more nights of interrupted sleep. Usually, most of us take such changes in stride—and yet, at times, it’s easy to wonder: Are these changes signs of normal aging or something more serious?
Below is a look at various conditions to help you tease out what’s suspect and what’s not.
Most of us won’t be quite as fast retrieving a name or word, or remembering where we put our keys, says neuropsychologist Robert Stern, PhD, Clinical Core Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Boston University: “But if you give it enough time and are offered enough cues, the information comes to you.”
If you can’t remember something that happened yesterday, if you’re repeating yourself without realizing it, or if you can’t find your car, no matter how long you try, and such memory loss gets in the way of day-to-day life, it’s likely you have dementia.
What to do.
See your doctor. “Memory loss can be caused by multiple problems such as hypothyroidism, vitamin B12 deficiency, or clinical depression,” says Stern. “If those are treated, you should be able to reverse memory difficulties.” That is not true if it’s caused by Alzheimer’s disease—a progressive brain disease that destroys brain functioning.
Most people over age 40 notice some change in their eyesight—a tougher time threading a needle, say, or reading a menu. The eye lens becomes less flexible with age, lessening close-up vision, a change easily addressed with reading glasses.
You may also notice that your eyes burn a bit or water more. That’s called dry eye, also common with age, and simply addressed with over-the-counter eye drops.
A sudden increase of floaters—clumps of cells—or flashes of light in your vision could mean you have a torn retina. Muted colors or halos around lights may signal a cataract. Hazy straight-ahead vision may indicate age-related macular degeneration, a condition that can lead to permanent vision loss. Trouble seeing traffic at roadway intersections suggests that you may glaucoma, or deteriorating peripheral vision that also can lead to permanent vision loss.
What to do:
Most important is to see your eye doctor for regular check-ups so that your doctor can detect and treat conditions early. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a baseline exam by age 40, and an exam every year or two after age 65.
Aches and pains.
From our 30s on, collagen—the protein that helps build bone, tendons and ligaments—and the cartilage that surrounds our bone ends begin to break down. The result is occasional aches and pains in the joints and spine, says orthopedic spine surgeon William Tontz, MD, Medical Director of the Spine and Joint Center at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California: “But most will subside with time or some treatment such as anti-inflammatories, pain medications if appropriate, or physical therapy.”
“Night pain is a red flag,” says Tontz. “That can mean you have an active turnover of structure in the body such as a potential cancer, infection, or severe inflammation.” Night back pain when you have not had an injury may indicate osteoporosis, a loss of bone density that can cause fractures. Numbness, tingling, or weakness in a joint are also warning signs of something amiss.
What to do:
See your doctor or a specialist who can investigate and treat the cause of your pain or weakness. Also talk to your doctor about taking daily doses of calcium and vitamin D. According to the National Institutes of Health, women 51-70 should take 1200 mg of daily calcium, and 600 IU of vitamin D (800 IU after age 70). Men over 50 should take 1000 mg of calcium and 600 IU of vitamin D (800 IU after age 70). And exercise most days of the week to keep muscles that support the joints healthy.
According to the American Academy of Audiology, one in three people over age 60 have some sort of age-related hearing loss. They may be hereditary or result from changes to the inner ear such as differences in blood flow. Although age-related hearing loss can progress, your doctor can suggest hearing aids that can lessen its impact.
Losing hearing because of prolonged exposure to loud noises can cause ringing, hissing, or roaring sounds, a condition called tinnitus. Hearing loss can also be caused by a virus or bacteria, or even by medical conditions such as heart disease. Head injuries, tumors, or certain medications can also lessen hearing.
What to do:
See your doctor if you, or perhaps more likely, a loved one, have noticed a change in your hearing. Your doctor can find out what’s causing the loss, and if the loss is permanent, help outfit you with a hearing aid.