The 10 Most Common Diseases in Old Age

Old age brings many challenges, including managing certain conditions that result from the wear and tear of organs and tissues. We explain them to you in detail.
The 10 Most Common Diseases in Old Age
Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador

Written and verified by el biólogo Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador.

Last update: 10 July, 2023

The population is getting older, as a strong social and health system in high-income countries allows life quality and life span to increase. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 2015 and 2050 the proportion of the planet’s inhabitants over 60 years of age will almost double, from 12% to 22%. Therefore, it’s to be expected that the prevalence of common diseases in old age will also increase over time.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the health of the population worsens, but that each inhabitant will have “more time” to develop chronic conditions associated with advanced age.

With an increasingly aging society and in an upward trend, it is very necessary to inform the general population about the chronic conditions that are associated with age on a regular basis. Many of them do not endanger the life of the patient, but they do require special care and changes in routine. Read on if you want to get to know the 10 most common diseases in old age.

What is old age?

The term old age refers to the last decades of a person’s life, close to the average age of death of the human species, which stands at 78.4 for men and 83.8 years for women in the European Union. This stage can be divided into 3 periods: youthful old age (55-65 years), middle old age (66-84 years) and advanced old age (85 years onwards).

Signs of old age are common to all human beings. For example, telomeres (sections of DNA that protect chromosomes) break down with each cell division, until they become short enough to prevent tissue repair from continuing and making cells die. It’s impossible not to grow old, because life requires proliferation, and proliferation wears out.

However, it should be noted that chronological age and biological age aren’t exactly the same. Although telomeres are constantly shortened, a person with good lifestyle habits will have less organic wear and tear than an alcoholic or someone addicted to tobacco, for example. For this reason, aging is unique and, to some extent, subjective.

The 10 most common diseases in old age

Around 703 million people over 65 years of age live in the world today, as indicated by the United Nations. As this number is increasing more and more, pathologies that hundreds of years ago were considered exceptional today are the new norm. Here are the 10 most common diseases in old age.

80% of aging people have a chronic condition, and 68% have 2 or more.

1. High blood pressure

The most common diseases in old age include high blood pressure
High blood pressure is often known in medical circles as a silent enemy, since it rarely causes symptoms. When these do occur, it may be an emergency.

The National Council of Aging (NCOA) tells us in a very interesting infographic that 58% of elderly people have hypertension. This term is used to describe high blood pressure, usually when the systolic and diastolic pressure figures are equal to or greater than 130/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg), respectively.

Most people with hypertension have no symptoms, even if their blood pressure levels reach very dangerous limits. However, sometimes this condition presents with headaches, nosebleeds, and shortness of breath. In 90% of cases, this condition is of idiopathic origin and is known as essential hypertension.

Diuretic drugs and beta-blockers are classically used to control this disease. Calcium antagonists, angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEIs), and angiotensin II receptor antagonists (ARBs) are also used. Still, untreated hypertension kills 7.5 million people each year, according to experts.

2. High cholesterol

This condition affects 47% of the aging population. Cholesterol is a substance found in all cells of the body, and it is a necessary compound for many physiological processes in humans. However, if it is stored in excess, it greatly increases the risk of coronary artery disease.

The incidence of this condition increases greatly with age, and therefore, men and women between 45 and 65 years old should have a blood cholesterol test once a year. Concentrations are of concern when they occur above 240 milligrams per deciliter.

Following a healthy diet, weight control, and exercise are habits that can greatly help lower blood cholesterol levels.

3. Arthritis: another of the most common diseases in old age

Arthritis occurs in 31% of the elderly, although the general prevalence is 1% if we take into account all sectors of the population (including young people and children). This condition is characterized by swelling of one or more joints, with symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and decreased range of motion in the affected limbs.

One of the most common forms is rheumatoid arthritis. In this case, the person’s immune system attacks the lining of the capsule that keeps the joints lubricated. This condition goes beyond the normal wear and tear caused by age, as an atypical immune component comes into play.

Analgesics, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are usually the drugs most prescribed in these types of conditions. In addition, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs are often used. The latter are of particular interest as they can stop the immune system from attacking the joints.

4. Ischemic heart disease

29% of elderly people have a heart problem, not counting heart failure (which we will see later). It is estimated that ischemic heart disease, in many contexts related to coronary heart disease, causes 4 million deaths each year in Europe, 1.9 million if we confine the sample only to the European Union (EU). This represents 47% of all deaths.

The risk factors for developing this group of conditions are the following:

  1. Age: The incidence of this pathological group increases dramatically with age. The risk in men increases after 45 years, and 55 years in women.
  2. Sex: Men are more likely than women to suffer from this type of disease, which is more common in old age.
  3. Heredity: The Y chromosome, the portion of DNA that determines male gender, plays a role in the inheritance of coronary artery disease. This is why it also occurs more frequently in men.
  4. Preventable factors: High blood cholesterol, arterial hypertension, tobacco smoking, diabetes mellitus associated with obesity, and other conditions favor the development of ischemic heart disease.

The cause of this clinical picture is the alteration of the coronary arteries, mainly due to atherosclerosis or abnormal hardening of the arterial walls. Various entities derive from this event, such as angina pectoris, myocardial infarction, chronic ischemic heart disease, or sudden cardiac death.

5. Cancer

If we talk about chronic diseases, unfortunately cancer is one of the main representatives. This condition begins with a failure or mutation at the DNA level in a line of cells that, consequently, begin to grow uncontrollably and don’t die when it touches them. Due to the grouping of malignant cells, the dreaded cancerous tumors are formed.

These mutated cells can migrate to other parts of the body, leading to a secondary tumor and an event known as metastasis. If the probability of developing cancer at 40-44 years is 3% in women and 1.9% in men, this figure shoots up at age 80, with almost 50% and 31.8% respectively.

We go further, since 60% of people with cancer worldwide are 65 years of age or older. This condition is inherently linked to age, since exposure to chemicals, diseases, carcinogens, and many other factors mean that, the longer a person lives, the more likely they are to develop cancer.

6. Diabetes: another of the most common diseases in old age

According to sources already cited, 27% of older people suffer from diabetes. This condition is characterized by the rise in blood glucose levels, either due to the lack of insulin production or due to an inappropriate use of it within the body. The general prevalence of this condition is 10% for the age group between 30 and 89 years.

The symptoms of diabetes are increased thirst, frequent urination, very obvious hunger, fatigue, irritability, blurred vision, sores that take time to heal, and frequent infections, among others. Insulin therapy is essential in patients with type 1 diabetes, but type 2 requires physical exercise and healthy eating to resolve beyond drugs.

7. Depression

As indicated by experts, 10% of the elderly who live at home suffer from depression. This figure increases to 20% in those hospitalized, to 35% in those who live in residences, and up to 50% of those admitted to psychiatric centers.

Special emphasis is often placed on helping young people cope with this condition, but we can’t forget about our elders. Loneliness, the loss of a vital partner, the lack of goals, and the diminution of faculties can do a lot of damage on a psychological level. Therefore, company and self-realization are very important, whether the person is 20 or 90 years old.

Loneliness and isolation in old age are very serious problems. It’s an individual and group responsibility to take care of our elders, since they have given everything for us.

8. Heart failure

Among the most common diseases in old age is heart failure
Heart failure is a difficult disease to control, requiring regular medical check-ups and permanent treatment. In fact, its mortality a few years after diagnosis is usually high.

Heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer efficiently pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body, causing a number of very serious systemic symptoms. About 1% of the population over 40 years of age suffer from this, and the prevalence doubles with each decade of life. From the age of 70, 10% of elderly people suffer from it.

It’s important not to confuse this condition with ischemic heart disease; failure can be triggered by ischemic heart disease, but also by various cardiomyopathies, valvular heart disease, and arrhythmias. Be that as it may, this condition causes 20-30% of sudden deaths in high-income countries.

Heart failure is one of the most common diseases of old age, but also one of the most deadly.

9. Chronic kidney disease

Chronic kidney disease is another of the typical conditions of the elderly and it is estimated that 18% of the elderly suffer from it. This pathology describes the gradual loss of functionality of the kidneys, organs responsible for filtering blood and producing urine. High blood pressure, obesity, and active smoking are some of its clear triggers.

The symptoms of the disease begin to establish little by little, as the renal tissue loses its functionality. Some of them are the following: nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, swelling of the feet and ankles (edema), chest pain, shortness of breath, and constant itching, among others.

The disease can be tried to prevent, but once the last stages of kidney damage have been reached, dialysis and kidney transplantation are necessary treatments.

10. Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of 60 to 80% of dementia, as indicated by the Alzheimer’s Association. This condition is characterized by memory loss and other mental conditions, as neuronal damage occurs and different areas of the brain atrophy.

Unfortunately, this is one of the most common and disabling diseases of old age. It’s estimated that 1 in 9 people aged 65 and over and 1/3 of those over 85 will show signs of dementia due to Alzheimer’s before death. Very little is known about this clinical picture and its etiology, so research continues today.

Age isn’t synonymous with suffering

As a final note, it should be noted that being older or elderly doesn’t imply being constantly in bad shape. Sometimes, we see it as natural to be unhappy or have constant pain in the last stages of life, because “we have already lived what we had to live”. Nothing could be further from the truth: depression is not normal at any stage, just as age is not an excuse for not controlling cholesterol or diabetes.

Although the bones and organs suffer over time, as long as the mind remains functional and the heart continues beating, the individual remains alive. With the help of pharmacology and relevant psychiatric support, an elderly person can enjoy their later years like any other young person in their day-to-day lives. Aging is never synonymous with suffering.

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