65 plus? 5 most common chronic conditions to watch for (and what you can do about them)

KABC logo
Monday, September 18, 2017

Chronic health conditions pose a heavy toll on millions of Americans, especially on older adults and their caregivers. In fact, 6 in 10 adult Americans have at least one chronic condition - a physical or mental health condition that lasts more than a year and limits everyday activity - according to a recent study from RAND. Roughly 4 in 10 have more than one. The prevalence of multiple chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure increases with age, affecting roughly 8 of every 10 American adults over the age of 65.

If you or someone you know has a chronic condition or may be at risk, there are ways to help manage the condition or reduce the risk of developing it. Adopting habits such as avoiding tobacco, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and regularly consulting with your physician can help those with chronic conditions manage symptoms and avoid aggravations, such as heart attack or stroke. At Alignment Healthcare, our disease management programs - which many times use remote monitoring technology - help prevent disease progression and aim to improve and extend quality of life for as long as possible.

Here's what you should know about the five most common chronic conditions - listed below in reverse ranking order - affecting older adults:

#5 Diabetes
What is it?
Diabetes is a group of chronic conditions that lead to high levels of sugar in the blood. Type 1 diabetes is most commonly diagnosed in people under the age of 20 and occurs when the pancreas produces little or no insulin, a hormone that regulates the body's blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes, which is the most common type of diabetes among older age groups, occurs when your body does not respond well to the insulin it is producing. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to a host of disabling and life-threatening health complications.

How do I know I have it? Common early symptoms include hunger and fatigue, dry mouth and itchy skin and blurry vision. If the disease advances, you may experience other symptoms such as yeast infections, slow-healing wounds, pain or numbness in your feet. A physician can confirm a diagnosis with a blood test.

How can I prevent it? You can help prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes by exercising regularly, not smoking, reducing your stress levels and getting a moderate amount of sleep each night. Your risk of developing diabetes increases with age, if you are overweight, if you have heart disease or high blood pressure or if diabetes runs in your family. If you are at risk, visiting your doctor regularly can help detect diabetes early.

How can I manage it? Diabetes can be managed with a treatment plan that includes a healthy diet, exercise, medication and insulin therapy. Your physician can help you create a plan that is right for you.

#4 Ischemic Heart Disease (coronary artery disease)
What is it?
Ischemic heart disease is a condition that is characterized by narrowing of the heart's arteries, usually a result of cholesterol build-up, decreasing blood flow to the heart.

How do I know I have it? Because coronary heart disease often develops slowly over time, many people do not have any symptoms until a severe blockage occurs. Some may experience chest pain or shortness of breath. Untreated, the condition may eventually result in a heart attack. High blood pressure and high cholesterol puts you at higher risk of developing the condition, which your physician may diagnose with a series of blood and imaging tests.

How can I prevent it? If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, lowering both can minimize your risk of being diagnosed with ischemic heart disease. Other ways to reduce your risk include not smoking, maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

How can I manage it? Once diagnosed, you can implement a series of lifestyle changes to help manage the disease, such as losing excess weight, maintaining a healthy diet, reducing stress and exercising regularly. Your doctor may prescribe a series of medications and, in advanced cases, recommend surgery.

#3 Arthritis
What is it?
Arthritis is a painful condition caused by inflammation in the joints. Osteoarthritis, the most common type, is caused by wear and tear associated with aging on the body's joints.

How do I know I have it? Symptoms include pain, swelling, reduced range of motion and stiffness in joints - commonly the hands, hip or the knee.

How can I prevent it? You can reduce your risk of arthritis by maintaining a healthy weight. Increased weight increases the pressure on your joints. Exercise also helps strengthen the muscles around your joints, but be sure to stretch properly to avoid injury. Injuries increase risk of arthritis.

How can I manage it? Arthritis cannot be cured but can be treated with medications, physical therapy or injections. In advanced cases, a hip or knee replacement may be the best option.

#2 Hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol)
What is it?
Cholesterol is a substance that exists in the fat in your blood. Too much cholesterol causes buildup in artery walls, making those with high cholesterol more vulnerable to heart disease.

How do I know I have it? There are no common symptoms, but high cholesterol can be detected by a blood test.

How can I prevent it? A healthy diet and regular exercise can regulate the level of cholesterol in your blood.

How can I manage it? If you have high cholesterol, a healthy diet and exercise can help treat it. Your physician may also prescribe medication.

#1 Hypertension (high blood pressure)
What is it?
Hypertension is abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries, which can put people at risk for heart attack or stroke.

How do I know I have it? There are no symptoms, but health care providers will measure your blood pressure at most visits.

How can I prevent it? Lifestyle changes that can help prevent high blood pressure include maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, eating healthy, reducing sodium intake and limiting alcohol consumption.

How can I manage it? If you have high blood pressure, you may lower it with a healthier diet (with less salt), exercising regularly and medications.

Dr. John Kim is chief medical officer at Alignment Health Plan, a Medicare Advantage plan from Alignment Healthcare. Based in Orange County, Calif., Alignment works with diverse communities to promote health and wellness for its members. For more information, please visit www.alignmenthealthplan.com.