Around 15 million people in England suffer with a long-term health condition, with around four million elderly cases. These conditions can be very challenging to live with and to treat. With an ageing population, the NHS faces growing demand each year. Outcomes for most of these health conditions can be greatly improved by noticing symptoms quickly. With this in mind, we’ve put together this handy guide to some of the physical and mental health conditions that could affect your older loved ones.
Physical Health Conditions That Could Affect Your Loved Ones
There is a long list of physical health conditions which are very common in older people. But with advances happening every day, medical science is giving older people the tools they need to manage these conditions.
When it comes to caring for loved ones in their later years, being well informed is a step in the right direction. We’re going to be taking an in-depth look at the most common health conditions affecting the elderly today, to help you have a better understanding of how to deal with them, should you ever need to.
One in six people over the age of 80 suffer with dementia. Dementia is a term used to describe a range of conditions affecting the brain. The four common types of dementia are: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies.
There are around 850,000 people currently living with the condition in the UK. Symptoms of dementia can differ from person to person, but increasing forgetfulness is a common warning sign. If you notice this in your loved one, especially if they’re over 60, it may be time to visit the GP.
Look out for these common symptoms too:
- Memory problems.
- Declining cognitive ability (processing information).
- Communication issues.
Dementia can also affect thinking speed, movement, mood, judgement and speech.
How to Look After Someone with Dementia
Here are some top tips for looking after somebody with dementia:
- Knowledge is power. Take time to understand the challenges your loved one is facing. These can include issues with communication, movement, memory and stress. They may be easily confused by everyday situations. Above all, be patient.
- Continue with hobbies. Dementia sufferers can still have fun! Try to keep your loved one involved in hobbies they enjoy. Our guide to hobbies for the elderly is a great starting point.
- Leave helpful reminders. Leave notes around the house in order to help with forgetfulness. For example, a note on the bathroom door could be a helpful reminder for your loved one to wash their hands.
- Install safety devices. A Careline Alarm, gas detector and smoke alarm could save their life. See our detailed guide to safety devices for those suffering with dementia.
- Animal Companionship. It may sound silly, but robotic pets are a rising trend! These realistic fluffy companions are great alternatives to real-life pets. Many can respond to your voice or touch. Alternatively, a visit from a friend’s or relative’s pet can be a source of real joy. Feeding, stroking, or walking an animal can be very empowering for somebody with dementia, allowing them to become the ‘carer’ as opposed to the ‘cared-for’.
- Maintain good health and nutrition. Although there’s no cure for dementia, keeping a healthy, balanced diet will improve quality of life and reduce the risk of other health issues. We know it can be difficult to keep up with ever-changing advice on healthy eating. That’s why we’ve written this helpful guide to misconceptions about healthy eating.
Arthritis is one of the most common health conditions among elderly people, which causes pain and inflammation in one or more of the joints. Around 10 million people in the UK suffer from arthritis. Much like dementia, there are different types of arthritis, the most common being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Symptoms can differ from person to person, and will also depend on which joint is affected.
The most common symptoms of arthritis are:
- Deep, aching pains.
- Stiffness in joints after resting.
- Pain when walking.
- Swollen joints.
How to Treat the Symptoms of Arthritis
For many people, the pain from arthritis is constant and long-lasting, but there are ways to combat it.
- Get more exercise. You may think that exercise will make the symptoms of arthritis worse. In fact, gentle exercise is great for keeping the joints moving and maintaining flexibility. If your loved one is new to exercise, we suggest swimming. It’s an effective way to work the joints without too much stress.
- Lose weight. Arthritis can be worsened by excessive weight, as this puts lots of pressure on the joints.
- Use medication. The GP may be able to prescribe painkillers or corticosteroids to help with the pain. Over-the-counter painkillers can help too. See the NHS guidance on arthritis for more information.
- Add turmeric to your diet. This spice, commonly found in Indian dishes, contains curcumin, which has anti-inflammatory properties.
- Try massage. Whether you take your loved one to a professional or roll up your sleeves yourself, massage has proven benefits for arthritis patients. However, it is important to consult a doctor first. You can also research ‘self-massage’ and help your loved one learn how to relieve their own pain.
- Try meditation. While it may not be for everybody, meditation is a route to relaxation. Research suggests that reduced stress levels can help arthritis sufferers cope better with their pain. If you’re looking for a starting point, there are plenty of guided meditation videos online.
Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological condition of the central nervous system. This means that the symptoms of Parkinson’s appear slowly over time and get progressively worse. Research shows that there are currently around 127,000 people in the UK suffering from Parkinson’s, and this number is expected to rise by 28% in the next few years. Famous sufferers of Parkinson’s disease include Muhammad Ali, Robin Williams and Johnny Cash.
The most common symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease are:
- Tremors or shaking.
- Changes in speech.
- Muscle stiffness.
- Loss of automatic movements such as blinking.
Sadly, there is currently no cure for the disease. However, research is ongoing and scientists have found an important link between Parkinson’s and specific genetic mutations. Lewy bodies are clumps of protein which build up in the same parts of the brain that are affected by Parkinson’s Disease. Lewy Bodies could hold the answer – or at least a clue – to the root cause of Parkinson’s.
How to help someone with Parkinson’s Disease
There are ways to manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease in order to retain a good quality of life.
- Physiotherapy. This can help to relieve pain and muscle stiffness through joint movement and exercise, improving walking and flexibility.
- Medication. Some medications can reduce the shaking and tremors which come with Parkinson’s. However, not all medications are effective for everyone, so you should always consult a doctor.
- Speech therapy. As the disease affects muscles, speech and swallowing can become challenging. A speech therapist can help by teaching speaking and swallowing exercises.
- Diet. Increasing fibre and salt in the diet can help improve symptoms for some sufferers. Parkinson’s sufferers are prone to low blood pressure, which can be worst after eating large meals. Instead, people with Parkinson’s should eat smaller meals more frequently.
Hypertension – also known as high blood pressure – is one of the most common long-term health conditions in the UK. Worryingly, many people can have hypertension for years without any symptoms. If left untreated, hypertension can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, and even death. Around one in four adults suffer from the condition without even knowing it. For this reason, hypertension is sometimes known as “the silent killer.” It’s also one of the largest risk factors for premature death and disability in the UK.
Symptoms of hypertension are usually unnoticeable, but if blood pressure reaches a dangerously high level, sufferers may experience:
- Severe headaches.
- An irregular heartbeat.
- Pounding in the chest, ears or neck.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Vision problems.
How to Combat Hypertension
High blood pressure can be reduced in several ways. Small lifestyle changes can definitely make big differences, but some sufferers may also benefit from medication. Here are our tips for reducing high blood pressure:
- Nutrition. Maintain a low-fat balanced diet including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Maintain a healthy weight. It’s important to stay active as we get older. You can find out your loved one’s ideal weight by checking the NHS BMI calculator.
- Cut back on alcohol. Excessive drinking can increase blood pressure and damage the heart. Try not to exceed 14 units per week. Here is a helpful tool to calculate the units in your favourite drinks.
- A low-salt diet. Ensure that daily salt intake is less than 6g. Be aware of the salt content in foods like bread, cereal, and ready meals. 75% of the salt we consume is already in our meals before we add salt at the table.
- Drink less caffeine. Caffeine is not only in coffee, but also in tea, cola, and other fizzy drinks.
- Quit smoking. Quitting helps to lower blood pressure, with dozens of other benefits besides.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep is thought to help the body regulate stress hormones. Over time, a lack of sleep could lead to high blood pressure. According to the NHS, most adults need between 6 and 9 hours of sleep each night. If your loved one struggles to get to sleep, then check out our list of top tips.
Diabetes comes in two types – 1 and 2 – but both are lifelong health conditions causing high blood sugar levels. Insulin is the hormone controlling blood sugar levels. With Type 1, the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin, whereas Type 2 diabetes develops when the body does not produce enough insulin. Of all diabetic adults, more than 90% have Type 2. Type 1 diabetes more commonly begins in children and young adults. Type 2 is most commonly developed in adulthood.
A person is at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes if:
- They are overweight or obese.
- They are inactive, exercising rarely.
- Their family has a history of diabetes.
How to Spot Diabetes in Older People
It is unfortunately common for people to ignore the symptoms of diabetes, or even not notice them at all. Many adults can live with Type 2 diabetes for up to 10 years before diagnosis. We want you to be able to spot the telltale symptoms in your loved ones (and yourself!)
If you notice any of the following symptoms, particularly in an older person, you should consult a doctor.
- Feeling very thirsty.
- Needing to urinate often – particularly at night time.
- Feeling more tired than usual.
- Weight loss.
- Genital itching or thrush
- Blurred vision.
- Cuts or wounds healing more slowly than you expect.
It’s very important to be vigilant, as early diagnosis can allow for more effective treatment.
If your loved one is diagnosed with diabetes, they may need to make changes in order to manage the condition. Firstly, they will need regular blood tests to monitor blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetics will need to get more insulin using injections or an insulin pump. Type 2 diabetes is typically managed with medication like metformin.
People with diabetes should also have regular eye tests, as they are at risk of Diabetic Retinopathy. If left untreated, this condition can lead to loss of sight.
The NHS have a very helpful BMI healthy weight calculator which can be used to check whether you’re currently at a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, losing weight can make it easier for the body to lower blood sugar levels.
Mental Health Conditions That Could Be Affecting Your Loved Ones
When we think about overall health, it’s normal to think immediately of physical health conditions. It’s less common to consider mental health conditions, even though they can be just as severe as physical conditions.
For the most part, getting older brings big lifestyle changes. In retirement, some people spend more time at home, while others get out and about each day. In either case, this is a significant shift in environment. It is important to understand how changes like these can affect mental health.
Taking care of a loved one with a mental health condition can be challenging, since symptoms may not be as obvious as a headache or aching joints. Thankfully, our knowledge of mental illness has improved massively in recent years. As understanding increases, stigma decreases.
Here are some mental health issues which affect older people, along with some guidance on how to manage each condition.
We all feel anxious from time to time, but anxiety can affect some people more frequently or severely than others. While it is normal to feel anxious about a medical test or job interview, anxiety can become a problem if it affects someone’s everyday life. This is known as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can also be a main symptom of other mental health conditions like panic disorder or PTSD.
Women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Around half of adults aged over 55 say they have experienced anxiety in later life. Remember that occasional symptoms of anxiety are completely normal, but if they affect your loved one’s everyday life or cause them considerable distress, you should seek a GP’s advice.
The most common symptoms of anxiety are:
- Racing heartbeat or palpitations.
- Feeling constantly ‘on edge’.
- A dry mouth.
- Excessive sweating.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Feeling sick.
How to Deal With Anxiety
In light of these symptoms, let’s look at some ways to combat anxiety. As with any illness, a healthy overall lifestyle is a step in the right direction. Eating well and staying active will maintain physical health in general, which in turn benefits mental health.
Here are some specific ideas for helping someone with anxiety:
- Be there for them. Anxiety can be an isolating experience. Simply making sure they know that they have your support can be a great reassurance.
- Get them involved. Engage in some mentally stimulating activities, as these can give focus and boost confidence, whilst keeping the mind sharp!
- Find the right support. Support groups (online or in person) can offer tried-and-tested advice. Mind is a mental health charity offering in-depth support to anxiety sufferers and their loved ones.
- Seek medical help. A GP can prescribe anxiety medications which may help. Doctors usually refer sufferers for therapy treatments before giving them medication.
- Be patient. Above all, listen to your loved one and let them take things at their own pace. Caring for someone with anxiety can be challenging. Remember that they are not choosing how they feel; after all, lack of control over their worries is part of an anxiety problem.
Depression is more common than people realise, affecting one in five people in the UK. Symptoms of depression can be mental and/or physical, and will vary from person to person. Nevertheless, the most common symptoms include:
- Continuous low mood.
- Changes in weight or appetite (usually decreased, but sometimes increased).
- Loss of motivation or interest.
- Feeling irritable.
- Sleeping too much or too little.
- Being self-critical and feeling guilty.
- Avoiding contact with loved ones.
- Suicidal thoughts.
For more information, see our in-depth guide to recognising depression in older people.
The NHS recognises three categories of depression: mild, moderate, and severe. The treatment one receives will depend on this categorisation. Treatments can range from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling to antidepressant medication or referral to a dedicated mental health team.
Many people deal with depression by making small lifestyle changes such as exercising more, eating healthily and cutting down on alcohol.
How to Help Someone With Depression
If your loved one is feeling depressed, you should encourage them to seek a doctor’s help without delay. Here are some ways you can help them in the meantime:
- Let them talk about how they feel. This is a simple thing that can make a big difference. We know it can be difficult or uncomfortable to talk about these things; if your loved one is hesitant, let them know that you will be there when they’re ready.
- Be patient. You might want them to get help immediately, but it’s important to let your loved one set the pace. Many older people can be hesitant to seek help for their mental health. They may feel that they have to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ but you can gently reassure them. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- Take depression seriously. If you broke your leg, it would need proper care and time to heal. Mental illnesses are just as serious as physical ailments, but we often dismiss them. Recovery is not as simple as “getting out more” or “pulling yourself together.”
- Be involved in treatment. Offer your loved one practical support where you can. This could mean organising medical paperwork, going to appointments with them, or helping them with household tasks for example.
Schizophrenia is a long-term mental health condition. Some people describe it as a type of psychosis, because sufferers may not always be able to distinguish their own thoughts from reality. The causes of schizophrenia are unknown and the main symptoms are varied. In some people, schizophrenia develops gradually over time, while symptoms can start suddenly in others. Noticing them quickly can lead to more effective treatment. To that end, here are a few key symptoms to look out for:
- Hallucinations, such as hearing voices that others can’t hear.
- Delusions (strong beliefs that others don’t share).
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Wanting to avoid people.
- Confused thoughts, based on hallucinations or delusions.
- Losing interest in things.
Treatment for Schizophrenia
Experts agree that schizophrenia is best treated with a combination of talking treatments like CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and anti-psychotic medication. With proper treatment, many people find that their symptoms get much better or even stop altogether. But be that as it may, there is currently no cure for schizophrenia. For most people with the condition, schizophrenia is something they live with for a long time.
Generally, people with schizophrenia should keep in regular contact with their healthcare team. For an elderly person, this may be easier with the help of a relative or friend. It’s likely that an elderly person with schizophrenia has dealt with it for several years, so you may already be familiar with their treatment. Either way, you should make sure to ask them what help they would like.
The NHS can provide lots of support, with most patients being referred to a team of community mental health nurses and psychotherapists. It’s important to look after yourself too. If you are caring for someone with schizophrenia, you can reach out to voluntary organisations for further support with your own mental health.
Loneliness may seem out of place on a list of health conditions, but we’re including it here because of its links to other health problems. Loneliness can strike at any age, but the elderly are particularly vulnerable. There are 3.6 million older people living alone in the UK, and over two million of those are over the age of 75. However, it is important to note that you do not have to be on your own all the time to feel lonely. Common causes of loneliness include bereavement, moving to a new area, retirement, or health issues which make it increasingly difficult to go out or visit friends.
Loneliness can lead to a serious decline in physical and mental health. Here are some warning signs to look out for:
- Loss/change in appetite
- Dramatic change in routine (e.g. sleeping in later or struggling to sleep at all).
- Neglecting personal hygiene.
- Feeling worthless.
How to Combat Loneliness in Older People
It’s important to deal with loneliness head on, as it can lead to depression, hypertension and psychological stress. Loneliness can sometimes fade on its own, but it’s better to overcome it actively. Here are some great ways to tackle loneliness in a loved one:
- Encouragement and support. Reassurance can go a long way. Reassure your loved ones that things will get better; support them by helping them make new connections.
- Patience. When someone has been dealing with loneliness for a while, they may be irritable or anxious about opening up. Let them know that you’re there, even if they’re not ready to talk just yet.
- Be there for them. Go and see them as often as you can. Let them know they have people in their life who love to spend time with them! On the other hand, if you don’t live close enough to visit, be sure to pick up the phone, or use technology to keep in touch.
For more facts and tips, read our detailed guide to fighting loneliness in old age.
Luckily, there is plenty of support around for elderly people suffering with loneliness. Below are links to support groups which could be a big help.
- The Silver Line is a helpline for older people.
- Independent Age and Age UK offer helplines.
- Friends of the Elderly offer a weekly or fortnightly friendship call from a volunteer who enjoys talking to older people.
A Positive Outlook
All things considered, we have never been better-equipped to diagnose and treat health conditions in the elderly. With medical science advancing day by day, we may see cures for as yet incurable health conditions in our lifetimes. In the meantime, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of a balanced diet, frequent exercise, and a support network of loved ones for both physical and mental health.
Are You Worried About an Older Person in Your Life?
All in all, getting older can make us more vulnerable to a wide array of physical and mental health conditions. If your loved one suffers with any of these health conditions, or if you worry about their safety or independence at home, a Careline Alarm is a step in the right direction. We find that a personal alarm offers great peace of mind to older people and their loved ones alike.
Our service ensures that help is available day or night. Our 24/7 Care Team are always on hand when you need them. For more information about our service, please call 0800 101 3333, or complete our Contact Us form and a member of the team will be in touch shortly.
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on 4th August 2021 to reflect current information.