Key Takeaways

  • Eighty percent of adults 65 and older have at least one chronic condition, while 68% have two or more.

  • Learn more about the most common chronic medical conditions and how you can prevent or manage them.

  • If you or someone you know is struggling to manage a chronic illness, the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program may be able to help.

Age, family genetics, and gender make it nearly impossible for older adults to avoid becoming a chronic disease statistic. Eighty percent of adults 65 and older have at least one condition, while 68% have two or more. You probably have a parent or grandparent who is managing a condition right now, or perhaps you are managing one yourself.

With these kinds of odds, you might wonder if there is anything you can do to prevent the onset of a chronic medical condition, or make managing an existing one easier. The answer is yes. 

Here are 10 common chronic conditions adults 65+ on Medicare were treated for in 2015, and what you should know about each. And you might want to consider a medical alert monitoring system to help maintain indepdence when living with one of these chronic conditions.

Number 10: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Elevent percent of older adults were treated for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic disease that includes two main conditions—emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD makes it hard to breathe and causes shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness.

  • The best way to prevent COPD—or slow its progression—is to quit or avoid smoking. Also try to avoid secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, and dust, which can irritate your lungs.
  • If you already have COPD, complete the treatments that your doctor has prescribed, get the flu and pneumonia vaccines as recommended by your doctor, and continue to remain active.

Number 9: Alzheimer's disease and dementia

Eleven percent of older adults on Medicare were treated for Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of dementia. Alzheimer’s Disease is one specific type of dementia—a condition that causes memory loss and difficulty thinking or problem-solving to the point that it interferes with every day activities. Dementia is not a normal part of aging and is caused by changes in the brain over time.

The biggest risk factors for these chronic conditions are things you often can't control, including age, family history, and genetics, but studies have suggested incorporating the following habits into your lifestyle could slow or prevent onset.

  • Exercise. Staying active isn't just good for your heart; it's also great for your brain.
  • Sleep. Your brain does important stuff while you are sleeping, so getting at least 7 hours of deep sleep a night is crucial.
  • Be smart about your diet. Research suggests that some foods can negatively affect your brain.

Number 8: Depression

Fourteen percent of older adults sought treatment for depression – a treatable medical condition that is not a normal part of aging. Depression causes persistent feelings of sadness, pessimism, hopelessness, fatigue, difficulty making decisions, changes in appetite, a loss of interest in activities, and more.

Steps you can take to help with depression include:

  • Manage stress levels. Reach out to family and friends during rough spells and consider regular meditation.
  • Eat a healthy diet. What you put into your body can affect your mood, so focus on foods that are high in nutrients and promote the release of endorphins and those "feel good" chemicals, and limit consumption of things like alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and highly processed foods.
  • Routine exercise. Exercise has a number of physical and psychological benefits, including improving your mood through the release of endorphins and other "feel good" brain chemicals, boosting self-confidence and self-worth through meeting goals and improving your physical appearance, and increased socialization through interactions at gyms and group classes.
  • Talk to your doctor. If you've experienced any of the warning signs of depression, talk to your doctor, and ask about your treatment options. Antidepressant medications or psychotherapy could be right for you.

If you or someone you love has had thoughts of suicide, dial 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Number 7: Heart failure

Fourteen percent of older adults were treated for heart failure—a condition that occurs when the heart cannot adequately supply blood and oxygen to all of the organs in the body. The heart might become enlarged, develop more muscle mass, or pump faster in order to meet the body’s needs, causing you to feel tired, light headed, nauseous, confused, or lack an appetite. The best prevention is to follow a doctor's recommendations to decrease your risk for coronary heart disease and high blood pressure.

Number 6: Chronic kidney disease (CKD)

Eighten percent of older adults were treated for chronic kidney disease (CKD) or a slow loss in kidney function over time. People dealing with CKD have an increased risk for developing heart disease or kidney failure. You can do the following to prevent or diminish symptoms of CKD:

  • Understand what damages your kidney. Diabetes and high blood pressure are the greatest risk factors for kidney damage, so taking steps to prevent these diseases is your best strategy.
  • Early detection and treatment. Talk to your doctor regularly, stay current on screenings, and keep up on prescriptions you need to diminish symptoms.

Number 5: Diabetes

Twenty-seven percent of older adults were treated for diabetes – a disease that occurs when your body is resistant to, or doesn’t produce enough, insulin. Insulin is what your body uses to get energy from food, and distributes it to your cells. When this doesn’t happen, you get high blood sugar, which can lead to complications such as kidney disease, heart disease, or blindness. Chances of having diabetes increases after age 45.

To keep you from developing diabetes or to manage this condition, your doctor may suggest:

  • Eating a healthy diet, including monitoring your carbohydrate and calorie intake, and talking to your doctor about alcohol consumption.
  • Exercising for 30 minutes five times a week to keep your blood glucose levels in check, and to control weight gain.
  • Safely losing 5-7% of body weight if you are diagnosed with pre-diabetes.

Number 4: Ischemic heart disease (or coronary heart disease)

Twenty-nine percent of older adults were treated for ischemic heart disease – a condition that is caused by a build-up of plaque that narrows the arteries leading to the heart. Narrow or blocked arteries decreases the amount of oxygen-rich blood delivered to the heart. This can cause other complications like blood clots, angina, or a heart attack.

Habits you can incorporate to help:

  • Refrain from saturated and trans fats, and limit sugar and salt intake
  • Get seven to eight hours of sleep each night
  • Keep your stress levels in check
  • Do regular cardio exercises
  • Abstain from smoking
  • Talk to your doctor about the major risk factors, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure

Number 3: Arthritis

Thirty-one percent of older adults were treated for arthritis—an inflammation of your joints, which causes pain and stiffness and is more common in women.

There are steps you can take to delay the onset of arthritis or manage the symptoms, including:

  • Exercise at least 5 times per week, for 30 minutes each time, to improve function and decrease pain. Try to include a mixture of aerobic, strength-building, and stretching movements.
  • Stay within the recommended weight for your height—losing one pound can remove four pounds of pressure on your knees.
  • Make sure your back, legs, and arms are always supported.
  • Take precautions to avoid joint injuries.
  • Do not smoke.

Number 2: High cholesterol

Forty-sevent percent of older adults were treated for high cholesterol – a condition that occurs when your body has an excess of bad fats (or lipids), resulting in your arteries getting clogged, which can lead to heart disease.

Lifestyle factors you can control when it comes to preventing or managing high cholesterol include:

  • Abstaining from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
  • Being active each day
  • Managing your weight
  • Minimizing saturated fats and trans fats in your diet

Number 1: Hypertension (high blood pressure)

Fifty-eight percent of older adults were treated for hypertension – a common condition that involves both how much blood your heart pumps, as well as how resistant your arteries are to the blood flow. When your heart pumps a lot of blood, and you have narrow arteries which resist the flow, that’s when you get high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. The danger of hypertension is not only that you can have it for years and not know it, but it can cause other serious health conditions, like stroke and heart attacks.

Things you can do to try to prevent, or reduce, high blood pressure include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Losing just 10 pounds can reduce blood pressure
  • Regulate your stress levels
  • Limit salt and alcohol consumption
  • Exercise daily, including a combination of moderate to vigorous-intensity aerobic activities, flexibility and stretching, and muscle strengthening
  • Check your blood pressure regularly—the quicker you catch pre-hypertension, the more likely you are to prevent high blood pressure

When these tactics aren’t enough to help with your chronic condition

The above tips can help you avoid or successfully manage a chronic condition. However, if you or someone you know is struggling to manage a chronic condition, there are programs in your community that can help, like the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program (CDSMP). CDSMP is a six-week, interactive, small-group workshop that helps participants build the skills necessary to control how chronic conditions affect their life.

Workshop sessions focus on the following topics:

  • Dealing with fatigue, pain, frustration, or isolation
  • Maintaining strength, flexibility, and endurance
  • Managing medications
  • Communicating with family, friends, and health professionals
  • Healthy eating

To learn more about workshops in your community and how to live with a chronic illness, contact your local area agency on aging.