Hesperian Health Guides

Health problems caused by aging

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HealthWiki > A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities > Chapter 13: Growing older with a disability > Health problems caused by aging

a woman with a walking stick speaking.
When I grew up I was always referred to as disabled. Now I’m just seen as an old woman with a stick.

Women often do not think about themselves as growing older until their children are grown or until their bodies start to change. You may also notice that your body gets tired more often, that you are not as strong as you used to be, or that it is not as easy for you to move about.

The better you understand the changes that can happen as women grow older, the easier it will be for you to know if changes in your body are part of aging or are caused by your disability. For information on taking care of your body, see Chapter 5. Here are problems women with some disabilities may have as they get older:

Weaker or painful muscles and joints

If your disability means that part of your body does not work as well as another part, over time you have probably overused the part that works better to make up for the part that does not work as well. For example:

  • if one of your legs is paralyzed, you probably use the ‘good leg’ more than someone who has use of both legs, and the joints may become weak from overuse.
  • if you use a wheelchair or crutches for a long time, the joints in your hands, arms, and shoulders can become painful from overuse and start to wear out.
  • if you are a very small woman (dwarf), you may find you start to get pains in your shoulders, knees, and hips from all the reaching and climbing you have done over the years.
a young man and woman helping an older woman stand.

If you are using a wheelchair or spending more time in bed, it is very important to move around and change positions as much as you can to prevent pressure sores).

For women who use wheelchairs

Women who use wheelchairs usually get less exercise as they age. Ask other people to help you stand or use a standing frame so you can put weight on the bones in your legs. Also try to keep the bones in your arms strong by lifting things. See more information about exercise.

Walking and balance

If you use an artificial leg (prosthesis), you may need to get it adjusted because it may not fit as well any more, especially if you do not move about or exercise as much as you used to and your muscles get weaker and softer.

If you are used to walking with no aids, you may need to start using a cane, crutches, or a wheelchair. Many women wait a long time before deciding to use aids that will help them. But starting to use a stick or wheelchair early can protect you from falls and injuries, and help you move about more easily. The better you can get around, the more you can take part in the life of your community.


a hand with swollen joints.

Arthritis is a painful swelling and stiffness of the joints. It affects many people and can make many daily tasks painful or more difficult. If the arthritis is in the hands, it can cause special problems for people with some disabilities. For example:

WWD Ch13 Page 279-1.png
deformity of the
hand from leprosy and arthritis
  • If you are blind and use your hands to ‘see’ or to read things by touch, you may not be able to do this as well.
  • If you are deaf, you may not be able to use sign language as well.
  • If you use a catheter to pass urine, or a bowel program to pass stool, it may be more difficult for you to do this by yourself.
  • If you have leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and your hands are already affected, arthritis will make using your hands even more difficult.

Skin problems

Your skin will become thinner as you get older, and you may find that you bruise more easily. This happens to most women.

  • If you sit or lie down for most of the day, thinner skin means you can get pressure sores more easily.
  • If you use artificial legs or arms, check your skin more often where it touches the prosthetic to make sure it does not become red and irritated.
  • If you have leprosy (Hansen’s disease), check your skin every day. Thinner skin will make it easier for you to get sores and infections.
  • If you have a spinal cord injury or a paralysis and have no feeling in your skin, ask someone to check your skin every day to prevent pressure sores, especially in areas you cannot see, such as your back.

Eyesight and hearing

Many older people cannot see as well as when they were young. If you are deaf, it will be difficult for you to understand if someone is speaking to you in sign language or if you are used to lip-reading.

If you have leprosy, aging may cause an inflammation in your eyes that can cause blindness if it is not treated.

If you are blind and also start to lose your hearing, communicating and moving around safely will be more difficult.

a young woman facing an older disabled woman as they talk.

Ask your family to make changes that will help you see, hear and move around more easily. For example, if you do not see as well, try to make the house lighter inside by painting the walls white, or getting a brighter light bulb. Mark steps and doorways with different colors so you can see them better and not trip or bump into them.

If your hearing gets worse, ask people to sit facing you when talking and to speak clearly but not shout. Turn off radios or televisions when speaking so you can hear better.

WWD Ch13 Page 280-2.png

Weak bones (osteoporosis)

After your monthly bleeding stops, your body starts to make less of the hormone estrogen and your bones may become weaker. Weak bones break more easily and heal slowly. If your balance is affected by aging, or if you have epilepsy seizures or cerebral palsy you have a greater risk of falling and breaking weakened bones. You can prevent weak bones by:

  • eating foods rich in calcium, with foods that have vitamin C, such as fruits and yellow-colored vegetables.
  • doing regular exercise that puts weight on your bones.

Mental confusion

Some older people have difficulty remembering things or have difficulty concentrating. For most people, this is not a serious problem. But some people develop more serious problems with memory or thinking (Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, senility) and eventually become so confused they no longer recognize friends and family members. They can become very frightened and confused by everyday things they used to know well.

An older person with Down syndrome may become confused more easily and may start to have epileptic seizures.