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Aging: What's normal, what isn't?

February 12, 2019 | UCI Health
older man with cane in pain

Advice on how to cope with the normal aches and pains of aging and how to remain energetic is plentiful.

But sometimes those aches, pains and fatigue can signal a serious problem. Dr. Sonia Sehgal, a UCI Health internist who specializes in geriatric medicine, explains how to distinguish between normal symptoms and those that may require medical attention.

As a general rule, any sudden or severe symptom should be checked out as soon as possible, along with any serious symptoms that linger, says Sehgal, a UCI School of Medicine professor of internal and geriatric medicine.

Here are some symptoms to be alert for:

Chest pain

Pain or a feeling of pressure in the chest should be evaluated immediately because it may signal heart problems.

For example, men who have been diagnosed with heart disease often describe their first symptoms as having had pain on the left side or a crushing pain, as if an elephant were sitting on their chest.

Women, however, usually experience more subtle symptoms, such as:

  • Pain or pressure anywhere in the chest
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • New and unexplained shortness of breath
  • Decreased tolerance for exercise

Breathing difficulties

Pay attention to any new breathing problems.

For example, Sehgal says, if you’ve been able to walk every day then suddenly begin feeling like you’re huffing and puffing, bring that to your physician’s attention. It could be a symptom of asthma, emphysema or heart disease.

Fatigue

We all feel exhausted occasionally, especially after a sleepless night or two.  However, profound fatigue could indicate heart disease or a problem with thyroid function that should be checked out.

Sehgal recommends contacting your doctor when you feel tired or fatigued with minimal exertion performing everyday tasks such as washing dishes, making beds or other routine activities.   

Headaches

When people who don’t have a history of headaches start experiencing new or frequent headaches, it’s time to see a physician.

Head pain could be an indication that your blood pressure is not well controlled or it may be a sign of something more ominous, such as a brain tumor.

Migraines, which can occur due to menopausal hormone changes women, or stress-related headaches may indicate a need for lifestyle modification to reduce stress and relax. Some headaches may also suggest a need for an eye exam or a dental checkup.

A visit to a physician is recommended for an accurate diagnosis.

Nerve pain

If you begin to notice numbness or tingling pain in your hands or feet, this could be a signal of nerve damage, possibly from diabetes, neuropathy or an indication of a pinched nerve. It may also be an indication of thyroid dysfunction.

“New symptoms of nerve pain or neuropathy definitely warrants a work-up,” Sehgal says. “Patients should have lab tests done and these can help determine what further work-up is needed.”

Joint stiffness

One of the most common complaints with aging is osteoarthritis. It typically affects the hands, knees or hips.

The onset of osteoarthritis is gradual and is usually experienced as a dull, achy pain, rather than sudden severe pains.

With these and other changes you may notice, Sehgal recommends paying close attention to your body’s signal and writing them down.

Observe your body

“In situations where you develop a new ache or pain, and it’s not severe or associated with fevers, chills, nausea or vomiting, you should observe it,” she says.

“See if you can identify any patterns. For example, when it occurs or whether it dissipates on its own. Keep an eye on it.”

Sehgal cautions against relying on information from internet or television sources. What you find may have no relation to your condition, may be inappropriate, contradictory or incorrect, yet lead to considerable feelings of anxiety.

“Talk to your physician — they can help alleviate your anxiety,” she says. “I never think of pain as insignificant. If it’s nothing, I can reassure my patients. But if it is something more serious, the earlier we find it, the better.”

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