It’s easy to brush off certain symptoms when you’re in your 20s and 30s. Dizzy spells, stomachaches and thirst usually can be attributed to minor causes. After age 40, though, those same symptoms may not be as innocent. When your go-to diagnosis no longer makes sense—thirst probably doesn’t mean you need a drink if you’re getting plenty of water and aren’t sweating—something could be amiss. Here, top doctors share how to tell when the same old symptoms mean something new.
What it could mean: If you haven’t been sweating on a hot summer day, your thirst may be a sign of type 2 diabetes, says Leann Olansky, MD, an endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic. This kind of thirst “results from water loss when glucose becomes high enough to spill into urine.”
When to see a doctor: Excess hunger, weight loss and dehydration along with frequent urination calls for a visit, says Dr. Olansky.
What it could mean: Nervousness in your 20s simply could be first-date jitters; in your later years, it could be a symptom of a heart attack, says Kevin R. Campbell, MD, cardiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While chest pain, shortness of breath and nausea are classic symptoms, women may experience anxiety, perhaps because of “hormonal and other biologic differences,” says Dr. Campbell.
When to see a doctor: If you have risk factors for heart disease and feel worried for no reason, consult your MD, suggests Dr. Campbell.
A Red Face
What it could mean: You may still blush when all eyes are on you—or it could be rosacea, says Jessica Krant, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. These broken blood vessels, usually in the center of the face, aren’t dangerous on their own. Eating spicy foods and drinking alcohol and coffee may bring it on, says Dr. Krant. But rosacea with excessive sweating, a racing heart or high blood pressure may signify hormonal problems.
When to see a doctor: If you want to get rid of it! A dermatologist can suggest triggers to avoid and topical creams or laser treatments to try.
What it could mean: “Low progesterone is a common factor in black moods in women over 40,” says Sara Gottfried, MD, an OB-GYN and author of The Hormone Cure. “As your ovaries age and progesterone production drops, estrogen starts to dominate,” which can sour your disposition. High cortisol or low thyroid may also be to blame.
When to see a doctor: If your symptoms include irritability, mood swings, PMS, anxiety and sleep disruption, says Gottfried. Vitamin C and cutting caffeine from your diet can treat low progesterone. Meditation and yoga may help level out high cortisol levels.
What it could mean: “It could vary from benign issues such as lactose intolerance to more serious ones including pancreatic cancer or peptic ulcer, gall bladder or inflammatory bowel disease,” says Phiet Phung, MD, gastroenterologist with HealthCare Partners in Torrance, CA.
When to see a doctor: Red flags include pain that:
is persistent and increasingly intense.
wakes you up at night and is accompanied by a fever.
comes with vomiting that prevents adequate intake of food and water.
comes with black stools or bloody bowel movements.
Tingly or Numb Hands
What it could mean: Long bike rides can pinch the ulnar nerve in your hands, causing muscle weakness and pain. If you haven’t hopped on a cycle in a decade, you may have carpal tunnel syndrome, says C. David Geier, Jr., MD, director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.
When to see a doctor: If hands get numb or tingly while you’re asleep or during routine activities other than sports or exercise, says Dr. Geier. Treatment may include anti-inflammatory drugs, steroidal injections or exercises. Your doctor may suggest surgery in severe cases.
Frequent Stress Fractures
What it could mean: Osteoporosis, which weakens bones and makes them more susceptible to breaks. “Stress fractures typically occur in feet and shins from repetitive high-impact sports (like running or jumping) or aerobic classes,” says Steven Gausewitz, MD, chief of staff at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, CA.
When to see a doctor: If your bone breaks or you experience frequent stress fractures, get a bone density test. “This is particularly important if you have risk factors for osteoporosis,” says Dr. Gausewitz.
What it could mean: The feeling may be exactly the same from low blood sugar or from a heart rhythm disorder, says Dr. Campbell. “Eating a sugary food or drinking juice can easily treat blood sugar issues, but not heart rhythm disorders, which can be life threatening.”
When to see a doctor: If you have recurrent or persistent dizziness, says Dr. Campbell. Your doctor may ask you to wear an ambulatory monitor, which detects heart rhythms during normal activities. If you have a normal heart rhythm when you’re dizzy, heart rhythm disorder isn’t likely causing the spell, says Dr. Campbell.
What it could mean: Years ago, achy calves may have been from dancing in high heels. Today, it could signify deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that could come with swelling and redness, says Dr. Campbell. Such a clot can become an embolus, which can travel to the lungs and create a blockage, or pulmonary embolism. Surgery, birth control pills or sitting still during a long car ride or flight could prompt it.
When to see a doctor: If you’re short of breath too, says Dr. Campbell. This is a sign of pulmonary embolism, “which requires immediate medical attention.”