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Most Common Causes of Hospital Admissions for Older Adults

Visits to the doctor are inevitable in the aging process

No one wants to go into a hospital for any reason, medical errors or not. But alas, as we age, hospital visits are likely in our future. Below are some leading reasons that older adults get admitted to the hospital.

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Cardiac arrhythmias. These heartbeat irregularities such as atrial fibrillation can cause palpitations, a sudden drop in blood pressure that can lead to unconsciousness, stroke and even sudden cardiac arrest. In 2009, 543,000 adults over the age of 65 were hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat.

Congestive heart failure. In 2009, 751,000 adults over 65 entered the hospital for congestive heart failure. Why so prominent? One reason is that people are living longer with heart disease, which over time damages or weakens the heart muscle, which can lead to heart failure — the heart’s inability to pump well.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In 2008, 822,500 people with COPD, age 40 and over, entered a hospital. Smoking is the primary culprit behind COPD, an umbrella term that encompasses emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Coronary atherosclerosis. In 2009, 753,000 adults over 45 were hospitalized for coronary atherosclerosis, or a blockage of blood flow to the heart from the build-up of fatty plaque. That could cause a heart attack, resulting in heart damage, or simply chest pain from lessened blood flow that hasn’t yet led to permanent damage.

Diabetes. In 2009, 655,000 adults entered the hospital because of diabetes. Being overweight, inactive and age 45 and older are three prominent risk factors for type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes. Common reasons for hospitalization due to diabetes include strokes, heart attacks, ulcers and dehydration from elevated blood sugar levels.

Infection. Pneumonia is the most common infection (see below) but urinary tract infections are common as well. For Americans over age 85, there were 137,000 hospitalizations for urinary tract infections in 2009 and 148,000 for septicemia — blood poisoning from bacteria.

Medication problems. Drug reactions of some sort led to 1.9 million hospital stays in 2008. Medications most commonly involved: corticosteroids, blood thinners, sedatives and sleep aids.

Pneumonia. Pneumonia caused 886,000 admissions in 2009. As we age, our waning immune system makes us more vulnerable to both bacterial and viral pneumonia. Other conditions like diabetes, stroke and flu can predispose you to pneumonia as well.

Stroke. In 2008, there were 892,300 hospitalizations for stroke or other conditions related to blood vessels in the brain. When blood flow is cut off to part of the brain — because of a clot in an artery or a blood vessel that burst — the result is a stroke, which kills brain cells and can lead to death.

Sources: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health

Also of interest: Avoid a return trip to the hospital.

Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a freelance writer who lives in North Carolina. 

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