10 Age-Related Conditions, Explained
The best advice you'll ever read about what happens to your body as you get older
Why Have I Sprung a Leak?
En español | Everybody loves to laugh, but what if a good joke makes you squirt a little? It's called stress urinary incontinence, and it's pretty common, says Alan Wein, M.D., chief of urology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Blame the aging body: "The nerves and structures that hold things in place, and prevent the urethra from moving excessively when you cough and sneeze, degenerate," he says. "The result is, people can leak when they laugh, cough or sneeze."
Pelvic muscle tears suffered during childbirth increase risk in women, while prostate surgery increases risk in men, says Wein.
Go more often. If you normally hit the loo every five hours, go every three, Wein suggests. This leaves less fluid to leak from your bladder.
Learn to squeeze. Contract the muscles in your pelvis as if you were going to stop your urine midstream. Do this for 10 seconds, 10 contractions, 10 times a day to strengthen your urinary sphincter muscles. Then squeeze like this when you cough or sneeze to stay dry.
Take note. To target your problem, write down what you eat and drink and when you go to the bathroom or leak. This will help you and your doctor determine whether you have stress incontinence or "urge incontinence," which happens when your bladder muscles contract at the wrong time. If that is your issue, a log may find the cause of your troubles.
Consider surgery. If your condition warrants it, your doctor may advise a surgical fix.
Act now if ...
... you notice changes in your urinary habits, leakage included. Incontinence can be an embarrassing issue, says Robert S. Kelley, an osteopathic physician at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, but symptoms can indicate a serious problem, such as an infection or bladder cancer.
When Did My Breath Get Gross?
Hold your tongue accountable. Most of the odor we think of as bad breath is bred on the back of your tongue, says Patricia Lenton, director of the Oral Health Research Clinic at the University of Minnesota. Your tongue is like a shag carpet, she says, and bacteria hide between the bumps and grooves. Plus, as we age, we take more medications. Many of them cause dry mouth, which exacerbates bad breath.
Scrape it. Use a smooth-edged tongue scraper to thoroughly clean your tongue, says Lenton. "Start as far back as you can," she says.
Feed it. The principal components of bad breath are volatile sulfur compounds, which release their stink when your mouth is at an alkaline pH. When you eat, your mouth becomes more acidic, reducing the stench, says Lenton.
Rinse it. Not just any mouthwash will do. A rinse with zinc and cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC) is your best bet against stinky mouth bacteria, studies suggest.
Probe it. Schedule a dental check to be sure to rule out tooth decay and gum disease.
Act now if ...
... these tactics don't work. Some cases can be caused by an underlying health problem, such as a chronic sinus infection or kidney disease.
How Come I'm Suddenly Drenched?
Heavy sweating could be a symptom of menopause. In both sexes, however, it could signal a hormonal disorder, a neurological problem or even cancer.
Veg out. Women who eat a Mediterranean-style diet or lots of fruit have lower odds of hot flashes and night sweats, recent research suggests.
Get defensive. If your aluminum-based antiperspirant stops working, a change in brand or application type (roll-on, stick or spray) can often help.
Do the wave. Still no relief? Look into microwave thermolysis. It inactivates sweat glands with microwaves while leaving surrounding skin intact.
Act now if ...
... you're soaked for no reason. You want to make sure it's not something more serious.
What's Happening to My Toenails?
Cracked, brittle, discolored and unusually thick nails from a fungal infection are embarrassing, especially if you like open-toed shoes.
"The fungus feeds on the nail material, and then it leaves behind a damaged nail," says David Tran, an assistant professor at the California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt University.
Age is the biggest risk factor, according to a paper published in PLOS Pathogens. People with diabetes and conditions that limit circulation are also susceptible.
Nail it early. Early treatment with a prescription topical solution such as Jublia or Kerydin is best. A more severe infection may need oral meds that require liver checks for harmful side effects, Tran says. Another option: Laser treatments are more effective than topical treatments, working in 80 percent of cases, one study shows.
Act now if ...
... your nails change markedly. Discoloration can be the result of skin cancer, which is often diagnosed late when it occurs under nails.
Who Moved the Bathroom?
If you've ever lost control of your bowels before you could make it to the toilet, don't freak out — you have plenty of company. A recent peer-reviewed study reports that fecal incontinence — or accidental bowel leakage (ABL), as it's also known — affects more than 16 percent of those of us over 70.
"As we get older, our nerves and muscles degenerate," says Satish S.C. Rao, M.D., director of the Digestive Health Center at Georgia Regents University. The larger issue is that nearly 30 percent of people with ABL don't tell their doctors about it, which keeps them from finding a solution.
Do the clench. The same squeezing exercises that help with urinary problems can also strengthen your anal sphincter, giving you extra time to get where you're going.
Get a breath test. It could be what you're eating. Certain foods can cause you to go before you're ready. Ask a gastroenterologist for a breath test to see if you don't properly metabolize foods that include the fruit sugar fructose, the milk sugar lactose, and fructan, a string of molecules in foods such as wheat products, onions, garlic and artichokes, recommends Rao.
Stretch it out. Your rectum is usually a "compliant reservoir," Rao says. In some people, however, the rectum stiffens into a rigid tube that can't accommodate pileups. In this case, your doctor may use a balloon to stretch your rectum, or recommend surgery, Rao adds.
Act now if ...
... you have chronic diarrhea, blood or pus in your stool, a fever, diarrhea at night, dehydration or unexpected weight loss, suggests the Merck Manual.
Where Did These Spots Come From?
Most dark spots caused by the sun are not dangerous, but a dermatologist can help you stay on top of changing patterns that can signal problems, says Jane Grant-Kels, M.D., director of dermatopathology at the University of Connecticut.
Zap 'em. Brown spots are often harmless solar lentigines, also known as age spots. About 14 percent of middle-aged people have them, notes a study in the journal PLOS One. These crop up more as you age, in places that see the most UV rays, such as your face, hands and forearms. Use a skin-lightening cream, or a dermatologist can zap the spots with liquid nitrogen or a laser.
Freeze them off! Seborrheic keratoses are genetic wartlike growths that are anywhere from yellow to brown to black in color. Although they are harmless, "they can sometimes be quite scary looking," Grant-Kels says.
She encourages most patients to leave the spots alone, but a dermatologist can freeze them for you.
Laser away. Red bumps are often cherry angiomas — clusters of dilated blood vessels. They're benign, but if you hate how they look, a doctor can erase them with a laser or shave them off with a scalpel.
Act now if ...
... any skin spot concerns you. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms for basal and squamous cell cancers include an unusual growth that doesn't heal. Signs of melanoma include a new spot, or one that changes size, shape or color. Your dermatologist can help track dangerous changes.
Why Are My Feet So ... Fragrant?
The bottoms of your feet are teeming with Staphylococcus bacteria, little organisms that break down the substance leucine in sweat to produce isovaleric acid. That's the compound that makes feet stink, according to research from the U.K. What's more, your sweat encourages those bacteria to multiply.
Older people, who tend to be less flexible, often skip a thorough foot scrubbing in the shower, making it more likely that the bacteria fester.
Set your dogs free. Air out your feet by wearing sandals after work or your workout. Letting your feet dry out can help fight the bacteria.
Brew tea for two. If that's not enough, an astringent foot soak can keep the bacteria at bay, podiatrist Tran suggests. Brew a strong pot of black tea, allow it to cool, and soak your feet in it for 10 minutes a day for a week or so. Another option is to try Domeboro crystals. When the crystals mix with water, they release aluminum acetate, which helps zap sweat and odor.
Act now if ...
... this stuff hasn't worked. A dermatologist or podiatrist might discover that a foot fungus is causing the foul odor.
Is It Me, or Is My Nose Getting Bigger?
Although the bones in our faces stop growing at around age 15, the cartilage in our noses and ears continues to stretch, says Steve Daveluy, M.D., an assistant professor of dermatology at Wayne State University in Dearborn, Michigan.
At middle age, the bones and fat pads in our cheeks start to sink inward, making our noses even more pronounced. "Maybe the nose got only less than 1 millimeter larger — because the cheeks shrunk some fraction of a millimeter, it adds up," Daveluy says. In addition, gravity pulls your earlobes downward, especially if you've spent years wearing heavy earrings.
Slather up. Apply sunscreen to your nose and ears daily, Daveluy says. It will help stave off age-related damage that makes skin droopy, accentuating the other changes.
Still an issue? Cosmetic surgery is the only way to shrink your nose or ears. If that's within your budget, a plastic surgeon can help you assess the possibilities.
Act now if ...
... your nose is growing and thickening, and it's red. You might have rhinophyma, a complication of untreated rosacea. It can cause the oil glands on your nose to grow and scar, adding to the size of your nose. See your doctor; surgery or laser treatment can help to reduce the damage.
When Did I Get Sooooo Gassy?
When the bacteria in your gut ferment food in your colon, gases such as hydrogen and carbon dioxide are released, causing even healthy people to pass gas up to 20 times a day. As we get older, though, some of us let go more often and with more odor. For instance, some folks develop trouble digesting the milk sugar lactose, making them feel bloated and causing more eruptions.
Pop simethicone. Use an over-the-counter anti-gas medicine with this antifoaming agent to break up gas bubbles.
Swallow probiotics. When taken consistently, these good bacteria can help calm gas, bloating and other components of irritable bowel syndrome, according to a study review published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. Since supplements aren't closely regulated, stick with big-name brands with strict quality standards, such as Align or VSL #3, advises William Chey, M.D., director of the GI Nutrition and Behavioral Wellness program at the University of Michigan. Or spoon up a daily helping of 5 to 8 ounces of probiotic yogurt.
Cut back on air. Some people struggle with gas, bloating and belching because they suck in too much air when they drink carbonated beverages or smoke cigarettes. "It's funny how often this comes up," Chey says. "People come in for excessive bloating and belching, and they're drinking eight Diet Cokes a day."
Check labels. Sugar-free candies and gums are low-calorie treats, but they can give you bloating and gas. Many contain sugar alcohols — such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol — that your body can't absorb. Avoid consuming them in excess.
Act now if ...
... gas, bloating or burping strikes often. A gastroenterologist might perform breath testing, which can help you figure out if you have a chronic problem digesting certain foods, says Rao of Georgia Regents University. The bacteria in your gut may produce excess gas when they feed on particular foods.
Huh? What? I'm Sorry?
Almost 30 percent of people between ages 50 and 59 suffer from some degree of hearing loss in one or both ears; 45 percent of those between 60 and 69 have impaired hearing; and three-quarters of those over 70 do.
While all those rock concerts didn't help, there are plenty of other contributors to diminished hearing, including aging, genetics, smoking, a poor diet and diabetes, says Craig Newman, section head of audiology at the Cleveland Clinic. These all destroy hair cells in the inner ear that send auditory signals to your brain.
Now hear this. Get a hearing aid. Once hair cells are damaged, they're kaput. And the longer you wait, the harder it will be to treat your hearing loss.
Fortunately, the brain can "relearn" the ability to hear, thanks to what the folks in the lab coats call neuroplasticity — the finding that, into old age, the brain can reprogram itself with proper stimulation. "Practically speaking, that means you have to 'teach' your brain to hear again, by wearing the hearing aids regularly," Newman says.
Act now if ...
... you suddenly lose most, or all, of your hearing. "Get to the doctor within hours, not days," Newman cautions. Depending on the cause — a virus, a reaction to a new medicine or, in rare cases, benign tumors called acoustic neuromas — steroids or antiviral medications can help lessen or reverse the condition. Sudden dizziness and hearing loss accompanied by ringing in the ears should also get you to a doc stat.
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