Jul 07, 2015


Our Aging Parents: 7 Warning Signs of Health Problems

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As our parents and abuelos get older, many of us take on the responsibility of caretaker.  We do this with love and appreciation, especially because they sacrificed so much for us.  We nurture them, make sure they’re healthy and promote their happiness.  While many older adults age well, without significant health concerns, there are many others who’s health deteriorates with aging.  Here are 7 warning signs of health problems to look out for in your aging parent:

Warning Signs:

1.  Weight Loss

Unintentional weight loss can be a warning sign of an underlying health condition or decreased level of functioning.  A physician should be consulted if your parent has lost more than 5% of their body weight over the past 6-12 months.  Here are some common causes of weight loss among aging adults:

  • Malnutrion: Consuming too few essential nutrients or using or eliminating them more rapidly than they can be replaced.
  • Depression: Decreased appetitite is one of the main symptoms of depression.
  • Dementia:  Dementia can make it difficult for individuals to plan and cook their meals, or even remember when they last ate.  Many of the executive functions necessary for meal planning and cooking tend to become impaired with dementia.
  • Cancer: Weight loss is associated with several types of cancer (e.g. colon cancer)
  • Difficulties cooking:  Assess how well your parent is able to grocery shop, plan meals, cook meals and coordinate activities related to cooking.  In the early state of dementia, for example, individuals become confused and forgetful, and may exhibit difficulties carrying out all the steps necessary for cooking a meal.  If you notice that your parent is cooking very simple meals (peanut butter/Jelly sandwich) and avoiding more complicated ones that require the use of the stove, that might be a hint about his/her capacity to cook their required meals.
  • Loss of taste or smell:  With aging, some adults loose some of their abilty to taste or smell.  This can have a direct consequence on their appeitite and interest in food

2.  Change in Mood:

A high percent of older adults experience changes in mood as they get older.  In particular, many of them experience depressive and anxious mood as a result of changes in their social network (e.g., loss of friends), their body (declining health, decreased level of functioning) and cognitive changes (forgetfulness, confusion).  Keep an eye on your parents mood.  Is she unusually quiet?  More irritable?  Anxious?  Moody?

3.  Changes in Memory and Cognition:

More than 5 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease.  A report from the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 1 in 8 people aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease.  Familiarize yourself with the early signs of dementia and discuss these changes with your parent, other family members and your parent’s primary care provider.

4.  Difficulties with Driving:

Driving among older adults can become a challenging experience, especially as they experience changes in vision, cognition and mental status.  Watch out for the following warning signs:

  • Getting lost or confused while driving
  • Getting tickets due to traffic violations (e.g., not stopping at a stop sign; forgetting to put money in the meter)
  • Accidents:  from mild to serious ones

Note that individuals diagnosed with moderate dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease) should not be on the road driving, for the safety of their lives and that of others.

5.  Difficulties Walking, Gait Problems and Falls:

Changes in walking, gait and falls can be related to a number of medical conditions such as vision problem, dementia, hip and joint condition, arthritis, and chronic pain.  Notice if any of the following is occurring:

  • Slowed gait
  • Shuffling gait
  • Dizziness when getting up from a chair or the bed, or while walking
  • Frequent falling
  • Difficulties going up or down the stairs
  • Difficulties walking long distances

6.  Urinary Incontinence:

Urinary incontinence can be related to a number of mild to serious disorders, ranging from bladder control problems to more serious neurological disorders.  Ways to notice if there is an incontinence problem going on:

  • Frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Your parent complaints about frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Spending too much time in the bathroom
  • Odors in the house or body smells that suggest there is an incontinence problem
  • Wet or soiled underpants

7.  Change in Level of Functioning:

Level of functioning refers to the ability to carry out the basic and essential activities of daily living at home, including level of functioning at work or hobbies of interest.  A decrease in functioning might indicate a change in mental status, cognition or health.  Here is a list (borrowed from the Mayo Clinic) of things you might want to look at when visiting your parent:

  • Empty refrigerator and cupboard shelves
  • Neglected household repairs
  • Household uncharacteristically in disarray
  • Accumulating laundry
  • Mounting garbage
  • Soiled or unkempt clothing
  • Stove, windows, and doors not properly shut
  • Unpaid bills
  • Unbalanced checkbook

Let’s keep our aging parents healthy! For more information and resources on healthy aging, visit the following sites:

Healthy Aging – Mayo Clinic

National Council on Aging

The AGS Foundation for Healthy Aging

photo credit: Caro Wallis
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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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  1. This is a wonderful post Angélica, thank you!
    Mexico needs to wake up to the fact that we all age. Usually parents are taken in by one of their children but there is little information on all the support groups or activities they could be participating in to keep them active and feeling motivated.
    When it was time to put my own Abuelita into a home it was the most difficult time for the entire family. Guilt, sadness, frustration… you name it.
    (BTW, she was a cutie! http://nicethingsinsmallpackages.blogspot.com/2010/12/la-reina-y-yo.html)

    So being aware of everything you carefully explain here is a huge help when the time comes to step in and take care of our “viejitos”.

    • Sue, thank you for bringing up this important topic. Yes, unfortunately, there are so many countries that do not have all the resources and support that many aging adults need. As a result, families lack education on issues related to dementia, elder care, safety issues, etc. I hope to write more on these issues — I have a specialization in geriatric psychology, and I really love older adults!

  2. This is wonderfull!
    I went to Venezuela to help my parents for a month. I wrote about how was my experience in Caracas and how I help my parents.
    Great job!


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