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Normal aging or something else? Keeping tabs on your parents’ health

Perhaps you’ve noticed your mom has lost weight, seems weaker and is a bit confused of late. It could be aging, but these symptoms can also be attributed to other medical causes. For example, she may be suffering from depression. Or perhaps her dentures have made eating uncomfortable. Maybe a drug’s side effect is causing her sudden confusion.

When your dad’s step starts to shuffle or your mom keeps repeating herself, you may wonder whether normal aging is the culprit or whether it’s something more serious like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. But other—often treatable—conditions you and your parent may attribute to age can affect physical and cognitive abilities, too, such as:

  • depression
  • a reaction or side effect from a drug or a problem with drug interactions
  • anemia
  • a vitamin deficiency
  • dehydration
  • a concussion or injury from a fall
  • increased alcohol use
  • a metabolic disorder caused by a poorly functioning kidney, liver or thyroid
  • diminished vision or hearing ability
  • an illness such as the flu, bronchitis or West Nile virus
  • poorly fitting dentures or the need for dental treatment
  • an undiagnosed or poorly managed chronic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure

How do you know when a parent’s forgetfulness or unsteady gait is age-related or something more? For example, some minor memory changes that don’t impair daily activities or quality of life—like taking longer to recall a person’s name or finding the right word—can be normal with age. But not remembering the road to take to the grocery store or not being aware of a memory lapse can be a sign of another problem.

You should discuss your concerns with your parent and encourage him or her to visit a doctor. Even insomnia and frequent urination warrant a trip to the doctor because these problems are often not age-related. Your mom may insist she’s fine, but you need to insist otherwise if you spot any of these warning signs:

  • physical unsteadiness, shuffling steps, dizziness
  • muscle weakness
  • weight loss or gain
  • bruising
  • confusion
  • increased memory problems
  • social withdrawal
  • insomnia
  • incontinence
  • increased urination or other urinary problems
  • a struggle to perform tasks like taking medication, paying bills or following a recipe
  • poor judgment
  • uncharacteristic behavior like irritability, worry, anger, agitation or suspicion

Plan to accompany your parent to the doctor’s office so you can help explain symptoms, when they began or worsened and what impact they’ve had on your mom’s or dad’s daily life.

What’s next?

By taking action now, you can help your parent take steps to prevent further disability and learn to recognize when he or she may need living assistance. And if your mom’s right, and it’s simple aging, you can still do much to help your parents improve their functioning and enjoyment of life, such as:

  • Get proper nutrition. Your parents’ diets should be balanced in protein, fat and carbohydrates to maintain a healthy, safe weight and get the nutrients they need. Help them plan menus that include plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and adequate amounts of lean meat, poultry and fish. Ensure they get at least 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day and consider a multivitamin. See if your parents need help cooking, traveling to the grocery store or choosing healthy foods.
  • Improve exercise. Staying physically active can help prevent, and possibly reverse, physical changes such as loss of lean muscle mass, lung capacity, flexibility, balance, bone density and mental function. Suggest to your parents that they take up an aerobic exercise like walking. They should work up to 30 minutes of activity three to five times a week. Fitness activities that incorporate weight or resistance training are especially helpful for improving strength, endurance and balance.
  • Engage in life. Maintaining close relationships with others and continuing productive activities helps add meaning and joy to life. Suggest opportunities for your parents to socialize or pursue their passions and interests. Perhaps they’d enjoy volunteering; taking classes; or joining a book, gardening, fitness or travel club. Help them find activities that provide mental stimulation, such as reading, doing puzzles, playing a musical instrument or playing games like chess, checkers or cards.
  • Maintain timely medical care. Help your parents make and attend their medical appointments to manage and prevent chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and osteoporosis. Make sure they have regular health screenings such as breast, pelvic, colon and rectal exams as well as immunizations for influenza, tetanus and pneumococcal disease. They’ll also need regular checkups for vision, hearing and dental.

Prepare for what’s ahead

This may be a good time to discuss the future with your parents. Where do they wish to live? What plans have they made financially? Are resources available for them to get the assistance they may need? Can you modify their home or yours to make it safer? Talk to them about the importance of completing advance directives so they can be sure you’re aware of their medical-care wishes. While getting older is inevitable, many changes and declines we associate with aging need not be.