By Sean Zucker –
Aging and its health-related consequences are inevitable. Pretending otherwise is a gamble not worth taking. However, simply surrendering to declining health isn’t an appropriate answer to growing old gracefully, at least according to a webinar on mature health issues hosted by Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Instead, a panel of experts noted that the key to healthy aging requires that mature adults be aware of pending physical and cognitive issues, attuned to changes in their bodies and know how to most effectively deal with any problems.
“It’s a fact of life that aging happens to all of us. Even when we embrace the changes that come with aging. It can be hard to decide if something is a new normal or a cause for concern,” said Dr. William E. Cullinan, dean of Marquette’s College of Health Sciences and director of the Integrative Neuroscience Research Center.
Beyond MU: The Science that Heals – Successful Aging Concerning Communication and Cognition Confirmation dealt with a variety of common issues facing mature adults, including deteriorating hearing, problems with swallowing and language, and cognitive struggles.
Hearing loss among older adults, in fact, is incredibly common, according to Dr. Emily Patterson. Approximately one-third of adults between the ages 65 and 70, and roughly 50 percent of people over 70 experience some form of hearing loss, she noted.
“It’s so common because the common risk factor for hearing loss is aging. The result is aging causes deterioration of inner ear structures over time and that’s why we experience hearing loss,” Patterson explained.
Other factors can also contribute to these problems over time. These include loud noise, either from long term exposure or an incidental blast, and genetic makeup. Certain medications and some underlying conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and strokes, can also lead to problems.
Officially referred to as presbycusis, age-related hearing loss can be tempered by identifying problems early. Red flags include frequently asking other individuals to repeat themselves; having difficulty following conversation; inability to hear high pitched sounds; needing to raise television or radio volume to a level beyond what others prefer; and experiencing a ringing in ears also known as tinnitus.
Admittedly, some loss of hearing with age is almost unavoidable. But Patterson noted that recognizing the signs of problems in their early stages can help limit the impact and severity. She also warned that being aware of potential hearing problems is critical because they can be linked to impaired cognitive functioning and dementia.
Panelist Dr. Sara Grace Dalton noted that age can bring on cognitive issues, some of which are natural. However, early awareness is critical to at least limiting some of the more severe elements of cognitive decline.
“As we age, we may see changes in abilities like our attention span, our memory for personal experiences, our ability to process information quickly and our ability to learn new skills,” she reported.
Some decline is normal. However, she warned that certain indicators can suggest more serious conditions. Signs for concern include major changes in memory for essential information, memory loss related to personal experiences, a noted slowdown in processing speeds or word-finding capabilities, and a growing inability to handle basic math.
Additionally, minor changes in short-term and how-to memory functions, social language use, executive functions, procedural learning, and visual or auditory processing are other signals that serious cognitive issues may be at hand.
“My rule of thumb that I like to share with my students as I’m teaching them and with individuals as I’m speaking to them is if you or a loved one are experiencing these changes and you feel like they’re impacting your ability to live life to the fullest then it might be worth seeking some medical advice about the changes,” Dalton explained.
Dalton’s advice for maintaining cognitive functions and language skills for mature adults is simple: use it or lose it or use it to improve it. Maintaining a skill requires that it be used consistently, which means supporting cognitive health by being socially active, having conversations and sustaining hobbies. Additionally, adequate sleep and exercise are crucial.
Speech therapist and panelist Heidi Ruedinger outlined seemingly small but potentially serious obstacles facing mature adults: eating and drinking.
“There’s no denying that eating is a social activity and we often associate some of our fondest memories around meals with our family and friends,” she noted in her presentation. “Not only does food provide us with the necessary nutrients and calories to function at an optimal level, it’s also an important way for us to connect with others. It enhances one’s quality of life and it’s supposed to be pleasurable.”
Unfortunately, eating and drinking can become a real challenge to many, often due to illness or neurological problems commonly associated with aging. This can also manifest in difficulty towards taking meditation, creating further hurdles for healthy aging.
Warning signs for this far-reaching problem, scientifically referred to as dysphagia, include delirium, playing with food, inappropriate sizes of sips of liquid and bites of food and unexplained weight loss. Dysphagia can also be identified through an individual having a hoarse voice, drooling, slurred speech, coughing, choking and runny nose.
This issue unfortunately can lead to even more serious health problems, such as aspiration pneumonia, dehydration, malnourishment and overall decreased quality of life. Anyone dealing with dysphagia should consult a physician or be evaluated by a speech language pathologist to determine the best course of action.