December 2, 2019

The holiday 'health check': early signs of health issues in aging parents

Madison, Wis. — Parents reaching their mid-70s and beyond may benefit from a little extra attention from their visiting children during the holidays.

According to Dr. Steve Barczi, a geriatrician and associate professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, adults who live far away from their parents and infrequently see them might notice changes in their health, and discussing them sensitively can help prevent problems down the road. 

"A whole host of health problems may gradually start to develop and cause challenges," he says. "A person may not have just one or two medical problems, but eight or 10." 

Shrinking Muscle Mass

One common condition most of us have never heard of is sarcopenia, which leads to shrinking muscle mass in older adults. Loss of muscle increases the risk of falling, problems with swallowing and choking, and sleep apnea, which can be related to changes in throat muscles that maintain breathing at night. Barczi suggests the following:

  • Watch elderly parents as they arise from a chair and then walk, especially climbing up and down steps, to make sure they have proper balance and to look for unsteady walking patterns that could increase their risk for falling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20 to 30 percent of people who fall suffer injuries such as lacerations, hip fractures or head traumas. If your parents become injured, they may have difficult living independently.

  • Observe if they choke on food or have problems swallowing

  • Talk with them about their sleeping habits and how rested they feel upon awakening in the morning if it appears they are tired. Sleep education, medications or devices such as CPAP might be helpful.

Signs of Alzheimer's or Dementia

Advanced Care Planning

Advance care planning is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself and to your loved ones.

As you gather this holiday season, invite your family to register for a free Advanced Care Planning class.

Adult children should also determine if their parents are having memory lapses that could mean the start of Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Some symptoms that should raise concerns include repetitive questions and statements, misplacing items, trouble managing medications, missing appointments, showing more confusion, and struggling to follow conversations.

Barczi says adult children who see these symptoms should discuss them with their parents, and go over options on how to alleviate them. These may include:

  • Reviewing concerns with their primary care provider

  • Seeing a geriatrician who is a specialist that focuses on the care of older adults

  • Contacting United Way's 2-1-1 phone number to identify local resources or using home care services

  • Relocation to a safer living setting if other options are not helpful

As people age, it may take longer to learn new things, or have trouble remembering names. Research has helped medical professionals better distinguish between ordinary forgetfulness and potentially serious memory issues. When to worry about age-related memory changes

Early Intervention and Evaluation

Discussions involving an older parent's healthcare needs can be difficult, but early intervention is the key to preventing future problems.

Accidental overdosing, undetected illness, and home accidents caused by cognitive impairment can actually hasten further declines. The older adult and their family may actually slow the rate of progression by intervening early. You can't regain what has been lost, but you can work to maintain what remains by stabilizing day-to-day life.

UW Health geriatric consultations are also available to set up evaluations of older adults. Geriatric consultations are comprised of three clinics:

  • Geriatric Assessment Clinic (GAC)

  • Memory Assessment Clinic

  • Mobility and Falls Clinic

Pneumonia Prevention: The Pneumoccocal Vaccine

As the cold and flu season gets underway, many people are rolling up their sleeves to get their annual flu vaccination. Yet, as the population gets older and more people are diagnosed with chronic illnesses, it is becoming just as important to get vaccinated against pneumonia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40,000 cases are diagnosed annually and more than 4,000 people die from pneumonia. The risk for death increases significantly for people older than age 65.

Over the holidays, ask your older relatives if they've received their pneumoccocal vaccine to prevent pneumonia.