What are the most common ailments those over 65 share?
To answer that question, we turned to gerontologist Gregory Pecchia, DO, FACOFP, from Eisenhower Medical Center which was recognized as “high performing in the area of Geriatrics” in the latest U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals rankings.
Dr. Pecchia has been practicing in the desert for five years and notes that he sees a healthier group of seniors here locally than he saw in his practice in Orange County. He attributes this to desert weather which may lead to lower occurrences of arthritis pain and disability, or perhaps those individuals attracted to this environment have a higher level of independence and wellness. “Here in the Coachella Valley, I see empowered seniors taking control of their health care, actively discussing analgesic pain care, and looking to more natural methods to manage pain and disability.”
If you are experiencing aches and pain, you are not alone. According to Pecchia, the most common ailment is arthritis. Nationally, approximately 50% of those 65 and older experience arthritis to one degree or another. When it affects the major joints, primarily knees and hips, it often leads to pain and may result in a lower quality of life.
“Simply remaining active is one of the best medicines available to prevent the pain associated with arthritis,” advises Pecchia. “It can also help prevent the progression of arthritis over time.”
Spinal disorders and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of spaces in the spine which can cause pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, is another common occurrence.
Osteoporosis is of concern as it can result in fractures from falls, one of the most common causes for hospitalization. And of course heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease are leading causes of death, with lung cancer at the top of the list. Prostate, colon and breast cancer are also common.
“We also see a lot of respiratory disease, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, bronchitis and asthma,” says Pecchia, adding that influenza and pneumonia cause more problems for seniors who are at a greater risk due to an aging immune systems.
With many of these ailments, pain management is an issue of concern, as it becomes a balancing act to find the best combination of lifestyle and medications to ensure the best quality of life.
It is important to establish a support system for seniors to assist with pain management. Ideally the family and community can work together to analyze the environment for risks, and add support where needed such as hand rails and ramps. Pecchia suggests that we look at this support as a “virtual seatbelt.”
How about one cocktail per day? Pecchia states that one per day seems to support a longer life span, but there is no data to support more than one. There are concerns with substance abuse in seniors which can contribute to accidents, falls, accelerating Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis and diabetes. “There are also cases where alcohol should be avoided altogether, such as with medication interactions.”
Incidents of depression can be quite common in seniors, particularly here in the desert during summer months. Many become isolated socially when their friends leave for the summer, and they also tend to keep their homes darkened to reduce the intensity of the sun and heat, which can result in a reverse seasonal affective disorder.
Dental health is important for those over 65, as poor dental health can lead to nutritional issues. Also, untreated dental conditions can be associated with cardio vascular disease and an increase in heart attacks.
About 9 to 10 % of seniors nationally live in poverty, and the decisions they have to make between buying food or buying medicines also become risk factors for health and a decreased life span. HARC statistics indicate that one in four seniors (26%) here in the Coachella Valley live at 250% or less of the federal poverty level.
So what do you do to keep the aches and pains at bay?
Dr. Pecchia recommends that seniors stay active, stay lean, eat healthy natural foods, sleep well and be engaged with family and community. He adds that it is important to have regular medical checkups as things detected early will lead to better outcomes, and to bring in medical assistance when needed.
“Being lean and active is the key to longevity and your quality of life along the way.”
Dr. Pecchia is board certified in family medicine and geriatrics and is part of the Eisenhower Primary Care 365 Program which can be reached at (760) 610.7300.