Chronic Illness Overview

Chronic Illness Overview


Today's seniors are, as a group, healthier and less limited by disabilities than previous generations. However, chronic conditions remain a significant factor for many seniors.

As medical breakthroughs and other advancements have extended and improved lives, more individuals are living longer with chronic illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the world has experienced a transition in the primary causes of death. As medicine has increasingly controlled infectious disease and acute illnesses, chronic disease and degenerative illness now account for most deaths.

Seniors and Chronic Conditions

Chronic conditions are impairments or illnesses that have no cure but result in persistent or recurring health consequences that last for years. They are the most prevalent health problem and tend to be more disabling in seniors than in younger age groups. Four in five seniors have at least one chronic health problem, and one in three have activity limitation associated with those conditions (Vierck & Hodges, 2003).

While many seniors continue to lead active and productive lives even with chronic conditions, they generally notice a progression of severity as they get older. Among seniors, 45 percent of those ages 75 and older are limited in activities because of chronic conditions, compared to 34 percent of those ages 65 to 74 and 23 percent of those ages 45 to 64 (National Academy on an Aging Society, 1999). These conditions can demand extensive care giving, whether informal (by a family or friends) or formal (home care or institutional).

The Impact of Chronic Illness

Chronic illness has a dramatic effect on seniors. Most significantly, it reduces their quality of life and ability to remain independent in their homes. It increases family pressures by placing demands for care giving on spouses and children. It also hinders seniors' ability to enjoy favorite activities and increases out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs, physician visits, diagnostic procedures, and hospitalizations. Often, these dollars must come from savings and retirement income.

Genetic predisposition, gender, and age-factors that can't be modified-make us vulnerable to developing chronic conditions. But other risk factors related to health behaviors and lifestyle choices can be modified. A high percentage of people with chronic illness have modifiable risk factors that could be treated, thus limiting the progression of the illness. Disability can be delayed as much as 10 years by practicing three basic health habits: engaging in regular physical activity, not smoking, and practicing good nutrition (CDC, 2004).

The Expression of Illness in Seniors

It is not uncommon for an illness to have different symptoms in seniors than in younger adults. It is important for you to know that for many seniors, confusion may be the initial sign of illness, thus signaling the beginning of an infection or the onset of changes in the manner in which the heart, lung, liver, or kidneys are performing. For example, confusion may be one of the first observable symptoms of a urinary tract infection, or it could indicate that the kidneys are not excreting waste properly.

Sadly, some seniors and their families delay seeking medical treatment because they mistakenly believe the onset of confusion, sudden or gradual, or altered mental behavior is Alzheimer's disease or some other age-related cognitive change. Any change in a Seniors cognitive function should be medically evaluated both to identify the underlying cause of the change and to identify amenable treatments.

Seniors may also postpone medical help for physical symptoms that they associate with "normal" aging. Acceptance of such indicators as pain, changed sleep patterns, or decreasing activity, among others, can prove detrimental to a senior and result in a worsened situation. Consultation with a health care provider should always be considered when there is a change of any kind.

The above information was provided by the Society of Certified Senior Advisors (SCSA)