Top Health Conditions for Adults Over 65

Lifestyle Changes Promote Longer Life

The leading causes of death among adults over the age of 65 are also among the most common causes of death among the population as a whole. Many of these conditions are also highly preventable and treatable. It is important to understand these diseases, know when and where to get treatment, and know how you can live with them to help prolong life and health.

Let this list serve as a guide to the best disease prevention strategies for a healthy, long life. Learn how to avoid or reduce the impact of some these causes through simple, but significant, lifestyle changes, such as eating a diet low in saturated fat, quitting smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight. Here are the top causes of death for adults over the age of 65, starting with the number one cause: heart disease.

1

Heart Disease

Heart disease, including heart failure, heart attack, and heart arrhythmia, can cause your heart to beat ineffectively and impair circulation.

These conditions are associated with, or caused by, diabetes, high blood pressure, hyperlipidemia, and smoking, along with an improper diet, obesity, too much alcohol, lack of exercise, and family history.

2

Cancer

All kinds of cancer, including breast cancer, colon cancer, and skin cancer, fall into this category. The malignant blood and bone marrow diseases that cause leukemia are a part of this group, too.

Older adults are at greater risk than the general population, though the cause for that is not clear.

Lifestyle changes that may reduce your risk of developing cancer include maintaining a healthy weight, increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables, and decreasing your intake of red and processed meats. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that men and women who engaged in recommended amounts of exercise had a statistically significant reduction in seven of the 15 cancer types studied. Using sun protection can also help protect against the development of skin cancer.

3

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) is a group of diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that make it difficult to breathe. As COPD progresses, you have to work harder and harder to catch your breath, often feeling like you're suffocating.

Not smoking or stopping smoking is the most important thing you can do to prevent or slow the progression of COPD. Avoiding secondhand smoke is also important. Use of a wood-burning stove or fireplace increases risk of lung damage.

More than 50 percent of people who have COPD don't even know they do. Early detection in the form of a simple, non-invasive breathing test called spirometry is key to good outcomes.

4

Cerebrovascular Disease (Stroke)

More commonly known as a stroke, the cause of cerebrovascular disease is either a clot or blockage that cuts off blood flow to a part of the brain or a brain hemorrhage. Both cases cause damage or death to brain tissue that can cause paralysis, speech disorders, swallowing problems and immobility.

Hypertension is the most important risk factor for stroke, but diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and smoking also increase the risk.

5

Alzheimer's Disease

This progressive and deadly disease is characterized by progressive memory loss, personality changes, and eventually a complete loss of function and ability. The causative factor is unknown, and there is no cure, though there are some medications that can slow its progression slightly.

Avoiding head trauma will reduce your risk. Ways to do this include wearing a seat belt and wearing a helmet when playing contact sports. Challenging your brain by studying a new area or learning a new skill may offer some protection. A systematic review published in 2014 found that former or active smoking is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the proposed mechanism being increased cerebral oxidative stress.

A study published in Diabetologia in 2018 following over 5,000 people over 10 years also found that those with high blood sugar had more rapid cognitive decline compared to those with normal blood sugar. Diet may have a significant protective effect: researchers from Rush university in Chicago performed a study that showed the MIND diet reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53%. The MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets.

6

Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes, is a chronic disease that lowers the immune system and can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, and other circulatory problems. With this condition, wounds take longer to heal and respiratory infections like pneumonia often are more severe.

Maintaining an appropriate weight by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can reduce your risk.

Avoiding or quitting smoking is also important. The 2014 Surgeon General Report states that smoking, by increasing inflammation and oxidative stress, has been found to increase the risk of developing diabetes.

7

Pneumonia and Influenza

Pneumonia and the flu are especially virulent during the winter months of flu season. At high risk are people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory conditions.

Avoiding cigarette smoke will reduce your chances of both flu and pneumonia. Practicing good hand hygiene helps as well.

The flu shot is recommended for all adults who do not have a contraindication (such as prior life-threatening reaction). Pneumococcal vaccination is also recommended in all adults ages 65 and older and in some younger adults with certain high-risk conditions.

8

Accidents

Falls represent more than half of accidental deaths, followed by car accidents, suffocation, and poisoning. Simple falls can result in fractures that cause immobility, disability and may hasten death. 

Balance disorders, failing eyesight, and slower reflexes may contribute to a greater risk of accidents than the general population.

Exercise programs that include balance exercises can help maintain strength. Keeping eyeglass prescriptions up to date and getting up slowly from a sitting position can be helpful. Being aware of the potential side effects of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications is useful. Wearing flat shoes that are rubber-soled will also offer some added stability.

9

Nephritis

Nephritis is a chronic or acute inflammation of the kidney. Possible causes include bacterial infection or toxic substances such as mercury, arsenic, or alcohol. Autoimmune disease and a number of medications may also be causes. It can progress to renal failure, characterized by decreased urine output and a build-up of toxins in the blood. Chronic renal failure may lead to a ​need for dialysis.

10

Septicemia

Septicemia, or blood poisoning, refers to a serious infection in your bloodstream caused when you have a bacterial infection in one part of your body and it spreads to your bloodstream. This serious condition can cause an overwhelming infection and death.

Smoking, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle all increase your risk of developing sepsis. Staying up to date on all recommended immunizations will lower your risk, as does good hand hygiene.

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  1. Matthews CE, et al. Amount and Intensity of Leisure-Time Physical Activity and Lower Cancer Risk. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2020 38:7, 686-697.

  2. Durazzo TC, Mattsson N, Weiner MW; Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Smoking and increased Alzheimer's disease risk: A review of potential mechanisms. Alzheimers Dement. 2014;10(3 Suppl):S122–S145. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.04.009

  3. Zheng, F., Yan, L., Yang, Z. et al. HbA1c, diabetes and cognitive decline: The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Diabetologia 61, 839–848 (2018). doi:10.1007/s00125-017-4541-7

  4. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015;11(9):1007–1014. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009

Additional Reading
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group - United States 2013.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (2015).
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Deaths From Unintentional Injury Among Adults Aged 65 and Over -- U.S., 2000–2013.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Leading Causes of Death (2015).
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