Lost sleep, low energy, lagging libido. Those are among the health problems that we often consider a given as we get older. But new research shows they don’t always have to be part and parcel of aging.
Consumer Reports debunks some common myths about the health problems that may affect you as you age:
Sleep patterns do change as we age. “It takes longer to fall asleep, and you tend to have more-frequent awakenings than younger individuals,” says Raj Dasgupta, a sleep specialist at the University of Southern California. You also get less delta — or slow-wave — sleep. That deeper stage helps you consolidate memory. And without enough sleep, you feel more tired, irritable and forgetful during the day.
But many sleep problems common among older people stem from other causes, notably medication used to treat unrelated health conditions. For example, diuretics taken to lower blood pressure or treat heart failure can cause you to wake up frequently during the night to go to the bathroom.
What you should do: First, ask yourself whether you’re bothered by your changing sleep pattern. If you’re unhappy with it, ask your doctor whether any drug you take or underlying health problem could be affecting your sleep. If those possibilities are ruled out, consider cognitive behavioral therapy.
Watch out for: Sleeping pills, which can pose such risks as next-day grogginess, confusion and memory problems.
About one-third of people older than 65 fall every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s due in part to a natural decrease in blood flow to the cerebellum — the brain’s balancing center — as well as inner-ear and vision changes that make it more difficult to orient yourself, says Mary Tinetti, chief of geriatrics at the Yale School of Medicine.
What you should do: Check your balance and strength. “I stress to all my patients that even at age 75 they should be able to get up from a chair without using the arms, walk across the room, turn quickly and sit down without any unsteadiness,” Tinetti says. If you can’t, see your doctor, who can check for underlying conditions that can affect balance (a vitamin B12 deficiency, a slow heart rate or cataracts, for example).
Watch out for: Blood pressure meds. They sometimes lower your blood pressure too much, causing dizziness when you stand and increasing the risk of falls.
For women, levels of both estrogen and testosterone have declined by menopause, which can lower the sex drive and make sex physically uncomfortable. Many older men still have a strong sex drive, but they may have erection problems because of low blood flow to the penis as a result of clogged arteries stemming from such conditions as high cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Despite those changes, “as people are living longer, healthier lives, they have all the same expectations that they have in their younger years, which includes sexuality,” says Marc Agronin, medical director of mental health and clinical research at Miami Jewish Health Systems.
What you should do: If you’re unhappy with your sex life (and not everyone with diminished sexual interest is), talk with your physician. He should check for conditions, such as diabetes, that can affect arousal. You should also be screened for mood disorders.
Watch out for: A jump to medication. More men and even some women are being prescribed testosterone, but taking supplemental doses of it is no magical cure. Prescription drugs to treat erectile dysfunction, including sildenafil (Viagra) and tadalafil (Cialis), can help some men. But they can also cause such side effects as dizziness, headaches and blurred vision.
“As part of so-called ‘normal’ aging, your mind does slow a bit,” says Ronald Petersen, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Brain neurochemicals change over time, he says, which explains the little glitches, such as forgetting where you put your keys. But only up to 20 percent of people experience more-serious problems with thinking or memory, studies suggest.
What you should do: Make sure your doctor screens for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea and depression — untreated, they can cause cognitive changes — and for hearing and vision loss.
Watch out for: Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy, Nytol, Sominex and related generics), anti-anxiety drugs such as diazepam (Valium and generics), and antidepressants such as amitriptyline. They have been linked to cognitive impairment and dementia.
Older people are no more likely than younger ones to be depressed, says Robert Roca, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Geriatric Psychiatry. But when they do become depressed, “usually it stems from a loss associated with growing older,” Roca explains. “They lose loved ones or friends, they lose their identity because they retire, their physical vigor declines and they can’t do as many activities as they used to.”
What you should do: Ask your doctor to screen for depression. If you’re mildly depressed, increasing your physical and social activities can help, Roca says.
Watch out for: Anti-anxiety medications. Some doctors prescribe them to treat depression, but this class of drugs, known as benzodiazepines, isn’t appropriate for that purpose.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.