Hesperian Health Guides
Common Health Problems with Aging
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The following pages describe some of the most common health problems of older women. For other problems, like gallbladder problems, heart trouble, stroke, thyroid gland problems, sores on the legs from poor blood flow, and difficulty sleeping, see Where There Is No Doctor or another general medical book. For information on diabetes, see 'Diabetes'.
- 1 Weak blood (anemia)
- 2 Heavy monthly bleeding or bleeding in the middle of the month
- 3 Breast lumps
- 4 High blood pressure
- 5 Problems passing urine and stool
- 6 Fallen womb (prolapsed uterus)
- 7 Swollen veins in the legs (varicose veins)
- 8 Back pain
- 9 Joint pain (Arthritis)
- 10 Weak bones (osteoporosis)
- 11 Problems with seeing and hearing
- 12 Anxiety and Depression
- 13 Mental confusion (dementia)
Weak blood (anemia)
Although many people think that anemia is a problem only of young women, it also affects many older women—most often because of poor nutrition or heavy monthly bleeding.
Heavy monthly bleeding or bleeding in the middle of the month
Between the ages of 40 and 50, many women have changes in their monthly bleeding. Some have heavier bleeding, or bleeding that lasts longer. Heavy bleeding that goes on for months or years can cause anemia.
The most common causes of heavy monthly bleeding and bleeding that lasts longer are:
More Informationcancer of the womb
- Eat foods every day that are rich in iron, or take iron pills.
- Take 10 mg of medroxyprogesterone acetate once a day for 10 days. If bleeding has not stopped at the end of 10 days, take the medicine for another 10 days. If you are still bleeding, see a health worker.
- Try to see a health worker for heavy bleeding that has lasted for more than 3 months, for bleeding in the middle of the month, or for bleeding that starts 12 months or more after menopause. A trained health worker will need to scrape out the inside of the womb (D and C) or do a biopsy and send the tissue to a laboratory to be checked for cancer.
If you have had pain and heavy monthly bleeding for years, see the chapter on “Cancer and Growths.”
High blood pressure
High blood pressure can cause many problems, like heart disease, kidney disease, and strokes.
All these signs can also be caused by other diseases. For more information, see Where There Is No Doctor or another general medical book.
Signs of dangerously high blood pressure:
- frequent headaches
- ringing sound in the ears
If you are visiting a health worker for any reason, try to have your blood pressure checked at the same time.
Treatment and prevention:
More Informationeating for good health
- Get some exercise every day.
- If you are overweight, try to lose weight.
- Avoid foods with a lot of fat, sugar, or salt.
- If you smoke or chew tobacco, try to stop. If your blood pressure is very high, you may also need to take medicine.
Problems passing urine and stool
Many older women have problems with leaking urine or have difficulty passing stool. They may be too embarrassed to speak about these problems, especially to a male doctor. So they suffer alone.
Urine problems are often caused by a weakness in the muscle inside the vagina. The ‘squeezing exercise’ helps strengthen this muscle. Also, to help push the stool out during a bowel movement, a woman can put 2 fingers into her vagina and push toward her back.
An older woman may also have trouble passing stool because her intestines work more slowly as she ages. It helps to drink a lot of liquids, to eat foods with a lot of fiber (like whole grain breads or vegetables), and to get regular exercise.
Fallen womb (prolapsed uterus)
More Informationpreventing fallen womb
Sometimes, as a woman gets older, the muscles that hold up her womb become weak. The womb can fall down into her vagina and part of it may even stick out between the folds of the vulva. In very bad cases, the whole womb can fall outside the vulva when a woman passes stool, coughs, sneezes, or lifts heavy things.
A fallen womb is usually caused by damage during childbirth—especially if the woman has had many babies or babies born close together. It can also happen if the woman pushed too early during her labor, or if the birth attendant pushed on the mother’s belly from the outside. But both aging and lifting heavy things can make it worse. The signs often appear after menopause, when the muscles become weaker.
- You need to pass urine often, or it is difficult to pass urine, or urine leaks out of your body.
- You have pain in your lower back.
- You feel as though something is coming out of your vagina.
- All of the above signs disappear when you lie down.
The ‘squeezing exercise’ can make the muscles around the womb and vagina stronger. If you have been doing this exercise every day for 3 or 4 months and it does not help, talk to a health worker. You may need a vaginal pessary (a piece of rubber shaped like a ring) that you put high up in the vagina to keep the womb in place. If this does not work, you may need an operation.
If pessaries are not available where you live, ask older women in your community what they use for this problem.
Swollen veins in the legs (varicose veins)
Varicose veins are veins that are swollen and often painful. Older women who have had many children are most likely to suffer from this problem.
There is no medicine for varicose veins, but the following can help:
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- Try to walk or move your legs at least 20 minutes every day.
- Try not to spend much time standing or sitting with your feet down, or with your legs crossed.
- If you have to sit or stand for a long time, try to take breaks to lie down with your feet above the level of your heart. Do this as often as possible during the day.
- When you have to stand for a long time, try to walk in place.
- Sleep with your feet up on pillows or on a bundle of cloth.
- To help hold in the veins, use elastic stockings, elastic bandages, or cloth that is not wrapped too tightly. But be sure to take them off at night.
More Informationback exercises
Back pain in older women is often caused by a lifetime of heavy lifting and carrying. It can often be helped by:
- Exercising every day to strengthen and stretch the muscles in the back. You might enjoy organizing a group of women to exercise together.
- Asking younger members of your family to help you, if you must continue to do hard work.
Joint pain (Arthritis)
Many older women suffer from joint pain caused by arthritis. Usually it cannot be cured completely, but the following treatment may help.
More Informationexercises to prevent contractures
- Rest the place that hurts.
- Soak cloths in hot water and place them on the painful areas. Be careful not to burn your skin. (Some people with joint pain lose their sense of feeling from the skin on the painful areas.)
- Keep your joints moving by gently rubbing and stretching them every day.
- Take a mild pain medicine. Aspirin works best for arthritis. For very bad pain, take 600 to 1000 mg of aspirin up to 6 times a day (but not more than 4 g per day), with food, milk, or a large glass of water. Ibuprofen also works well. Take 400 mg 4 to 6 times a day.
Weak bones (osteoporosis)
Weak bones are a major cause of disability for older women.
Both exercise and calcium make the bones stronger.
After menopause, a woman’s body starts to make less estrogen, and her bones become weaker. Weak bones break easily and heal slowly.
A woman is more likely to get weak bones if she:
- is over 70 years old.
- is thin.
- does not exercise.
- does not eat enough foods rich in calcium.
- has been pregnant many times.
- drinks a lot of alcohol.
- smokes or chews tobacco.
- Walk for 20 to 30 minutes every day.
- Eat foods rich in calcium.
Problems with seeing and hearing
As they get older, many women are not able to see and hear as well as they used to. Women with seeing or hearing problems are more likely to have accidents, and less likely to work outside the home or to take part in community life.
Problems with seeing
After the age of 40, it is common to have problems seeing close objects clearly. This is called being farsighted. Often eye glasses will help.
A woman should also watch for signs of too much pressure from fluid in the eye (glaucoma), which can damage the inside of her eye and lead to blindness. Acute glaucoma starts suddenly, with severe headache or pain in the eye. The eye will also feel hard to the touch. Chronic glaucoma usually is not painful, but a woman slowly starts to lose vision to the side. If possible, older women should get their eyes checked at a health center for these problems. For more information, see Where There Is No Doctor or another general medical book.
Problems with hearing
Many women over the age of 50 have hearing loss. Other people may overlook the problem since they cannot see it. Or they may start to leave the person out of conversations and social activities.
If you notice that you are losing your hearing, here are some things you can do:
- Sit facing the person you are talking to.
- Ask family members and friends to speak slowly and clearly. But tell them not to shout. Shouting can make words even more difficult to understand.
- Turn off radios or televisions when participating in conversations.
- Ask a health worker if your hearing loss can be treated with medicines, surgery, or by using a hearing aid.
Anxiety and Depression
Older women sometimes feel anxious or depressed because their role in the family and community has changed, because they feel alone or worried about the future, or because they have health problems that cause pain and discomfort. For more information on anxiety and depression, see the chapter on “Mental Health .”
Mental confusion (dementia)
Some older people have difficulty remembering things and thinking clearly. When these problems become severe, it is called dementia.
- difficulty concentrating, or getting lost in the middle of a conversation.
- repeating the same thing over and over. The person will not remember having said the same thing before.
- difficulty with daily tasks. The person may have trouble knowing how to dress or prepare food.
- behavior changes. The person may become irritable, angry, or do sudden, unexpected things.
These signs are caused by changes in the brain, and usually develop over a long period of time. If the signs begin suddenly, the problem probably has other causes, such as too much medicine in the body (toxicity), a serious infection, malnutrition, or severe depression. The confusion will often go away if these problems are treated.
There is no special treatment or cure for dementia. Caring for someone who is confused can be very hard on family members. It helps to share the responsibility of care and get support from people outside the family when possible.
To help the person with dementia, try to:
- make her surroundings as safe as possible.
- keep daily routines regular so she knows what to expect.
- keep familiar objects around the house.
- talk to her in a calm, slow voice. Give her plenty of time to answer.
- set clear limits without a lot of choices. Ask questions that can be answered “yes” or “no.”