As we age, our bodies go through many changes that can lead to chronic health conditions and disabilities. These age-related impairments make it harder for seniors to care for themselves and live independently. However, understanding the common disabilities experienced by the elderly and their causes can help guide proactive solutions. With the right medical treatment, assistive devices, environmental adaptations and lifestyle changes, seniors can often manage their disabilities and continue to lead joyful, engaged lives.
This article will overview six of the most prevalent chronic disabilities for seniors over 70 – vision loss, hearing loss, arthritis, cognitive impairment, heart disease and foot problems. We will explore the causes and provide solutions to help seniors minimize disability and maximize quality of life.
Age-related vision loss is extremely common, affecting millions of older adults. The leading causes are:
Cataracts – Clouding of the eye’s lens. Cataracts develop slowly over time and can blur vision or cause glare. They are treated with surgery to remove and replace the cloudy lens.
Macular degeneration – Damage to the retina. It leads to loss of central vision making activities like reading difficult. Treatment options include injections to slow progression, laser surgery, and visual aids.
Diabetic retinopathy – Damage to retinal blood vessels due to diabetes. Laser surgery, injections and vitrectomy surgery are used to slow or reverse damage. Controlling diabetes is crucial.
Glaucoma – Increased eye pressure damages the optic nerve. Eye drops, oral medications, laser surgery and traditional surgery can help lower eye pressure and prevent vision loss.
Regular eye exams, early treatment, proper eyeglass prescriptions, and visual aids like magnifiers and large-print reading materials can all help the elderly better manage age-related vision changes. Low vision rehabilitation offers training on completing daily tasks with low vision.
Around 2 in 3 people over age 70 have clinically significant hearing loss. The main causes are:
Presbycusis – Gradual loss of hearing due to aging. High frequency sound waves are affected first making it hard to hear things like voices.
Noise induced – Hearing loss from loud noise exposure which can accumulate over one’s lifetime.
Earwax blockage – Buildup of excess earwax which can block sound from reaching the eardrum.
Ototoxic medications – Certain prescription drugs are toxic to the ears and can damage hair cells.
Treatment options include wax removal, surgically implanted hearing aids, and external hearing aids. Hearing aids come in many styles nowadays from completely-in-canal to behind-the-ear. Key features that help the elderly are amplification to make sounds louder, noise reduction technology to dampen background noise, and Bluetooth connectivity to stream audio directly from devices. A great place to research the latest hearing aid options is phonak.com/en-us/hearing-devices/hearing-aids. With the right hearing aids fitted by an audiologist, hearing loss need not prevent seniors from fully participating in life.
Arthritis causes joint pain, stiffness and swelling that gets worse with age. The two most common types in seniors are:
Osteoarthritis – Cartilage breakdown in the joints from wear and tear. The knees, hips, hands and spine are often affected.
Rheumatoid arthritis – An autoimmune disorder that causes painful inflammation in joint linings.
Lifestyle changes like exercise, weight loss, using assistive devices and avoiding activities that strain joints can help seniors manage arthritis. Over-the-counter pain relievers, prescription anti-inflammatories, and corticosteroid joint injections provide pain relief. For advanced arthritis, joint replacement surgery is an option. Occupational therapy helps seniors adapt their homes and learn techniques for daily tasks that reduce joint strains.
A certain degree of cognitive decline is normal with aging. However, more than 16% of seniors over age 70 suffer from mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia also become more common after age 65.
- Amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles that damage neurons in the brain
- Vascular changes that reduce blood flow to the brain
- Neurotransmitter imbalances
- Traumatic brain injuries
Drug therapies like cholinesterase inhibitors can temporarily improve cognition. Keeping mentally and socially active seems to help slow further decline. Assistive devices like reminder apps and pill organizers compensate for memory lapses. Safety proofing the home prevents injuries. Caregiver education helps families understand and properly care for those with dementia.
Heart disease remains a leading cause of disability and death in seniors. Common causes are:
Atherosclerosis – Fatty, calcified plaques in the heart’s arteries limit blood flow. This can result in angina and heart attacks.
Enlarged heart – The heart’s muscular walls thicken and become stiffer. This reduces pumping ability and causes arrhythmias.
Heart valve problems – Age-related changes to heart valves causes narrowing, regurgitation or prolapse.
Reducing risk factors by controlling cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes is key. Medications like statins, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and anticoagulants help treat various forms of heart disease. Procedures like stents and bypass surgery open blocked arteries. Heart valve repair/replacement surgery, pacemakers and AICD devices treat arrhythmias and improve cardiac function in seniors. With prompt treatment, many seniors can manage heart disease and avoid disability.
Many foot conditions become more prevalent with age and weight gain:
Arthritis – Causes painful bunions, joint stiffness and big toe deformities. Custom orthotics cushions arthritic joints. Surgery removes swollen joint tissue.
Diabetic neuropathy – Nerve damage leads to foot ulcers and poor wound healing. Proper foot care and shoes that reduce pressure points help prevent ulcers.
Plantar fasciitis – The heel’s connective tissue becomes inflamed and painful. Arch supports, stretching and rest help recovery.
Ingrown or thickened toenails – Affect walking and wearing shoes. Can be trimmed or removed by a podiatrist.
As with other age-related disabilities, the key is early diagnosis and treatment. Podiatrists can assess foot issues and provide specialist care so seniors can stay active.
Seniors face higher rates of chronic conditions affecting their vision, hearing, joint mobility, cognition, heart health, and feet. Staying active physically, mentally and socially helps slow impairment. Assistive devices and environmental adaptations allow seniors to retain independence longer. Medical specialists can diagnose and treat age-related disabilities, improving seniors’ comfort and quality of life. With proactive care, seniors can continue participating and finding meaning in their later years despite disabilities.