Beat these five problems that accompany ageing

As we age, we think that losing balance, memory loss, incontinence and other problems all come with the territory. But what if we told you that’s not true?

Old man with his walking stick / ageing gracefully

You’ve just blown off the candles on your 60th birthday cake. You’re overwhelmed with feelings of fulfilment and gratitude, but there’s also a tiny bit of anxiety. You’ve always imagined that you would be ageing gracefully, but the emotional and physical signs you’re noticing seem to tell a different story. Let’s take a look at the not so commonly discussed issues of ageing and how you can manage them like an ace.

Reduced sense of taste and smell

While everyone else is enjoying their meal, you’re the only one asking for a multitude of condiments to be passed. Or you notice that the foods that you’ve always loved don’t excite you anymore. Ageing may reduce your sensitivity to taste, because as you age, the number of taste buds on the tongue decreases. Also, your sense of smell plays a role in how you taste your food. The aroma of the food sends a signal to your taste buds to secrete more saliva. If this is not happening, your mouth produces less saliva and this causes dry mouth, which in turn can affect your sense of taste.

People who experience diminished taste and smell often get depressed, as food no longer has the joy it once held. The most appetising foods seem unappealing; and if you add excessive salt or sugar to compensate for the loss of taste it may wreak havoc with your blood sugar levels and blood pressure too [if you have hypertension]. Loss of taste can also cause a nutrition deficiency as you no longer have the desire to eat. Besides, you become unable to detect if the food has gone bad.

How you can beat it

  • Get regular flu shots to keeps respiratory infections away
  • Your medication might be altering your sense of taste; have your doctor adjust the dose or substitute it with something else
  • Avoid allergens like pet dander, grass, dust and others
  • Stopping or reducing smoking can significantly restore your sense of taste
  • Instead of adding more salt or sugar, use herbs and natural sweeteners to add more flavour to your food
  • Certain foods taste better when they are eaten either hot or cold; have your food warmer or cooler for enhanced taste
  • Maintain impeccable oral hygiene and give immediate attention to any dental problems.

Emotional problems

It is fairly common for older people to have emotional problems [which can often be mistaken for dementia]. As people gear up to face retirement, some of them believe that their remaining years will be an unending saga of gloom and doom. They may get upset, melancholic, lonely or bored. Also, as their children move to other cities or the grandchildren get busier with their school and college schedules, seniors may get a feeling of being redundant or may experience the empty nest syndrome.

Depression is worse still for people who are grieving over the loss of a loved one or who have been given a serious medical diagnosis.

How you can beat it

  • Stay social; emotional problems can be eased by the support of the people around you. If possible, live close to your family
  • Visit friends regularly
  • Join a book club or dance class. Many communities have a senior-citizens group, which organises weekly events, classes and other activities for seniors
  • Get professional help from a doctor or counsellor if you feel the need

Slow reflexes, reduced alertness and dullness of memory

Old man playing tennis
Challenge your brain by learning something new

As we age, we find it difficult to articulate our thoughts and might say “toasted peanuts” when we mean “roasted peanuts”. But if you say “purple curtains” when you really mean “roasted peanuts”, then that is a sign to watch out for, as it can indicate memory decline at best or a stroke at worst.

The recall ability in old age is affected because of the decreased blood flow to the brain. Also our bodies become less efficient at absorbing brain-enhancing nutrients, which leads to changes in cognitive skills. You may notice that you’re dropping things more often while working in the kitchen or that driving has become a problem for you.

How you can beat it

  • Challenge your brain with crosswords, Sudoku or other puzzles
  • Play games like chess, Jenga, scrabble or others that involve strategy
  • Learn a new language, an instrument, driving route or recipe
  • Read books, newspapers and magazines
  • Work on projects that require you to plan and design them. Quilting, knitting clothes, starting a terrace garden are just a few ideas for you.

Urinary incontinence

Types of incontinence

  • Stress incontinence: When you put pressure on your bladder by coughing, sneezing, laughing, exercising or lifting something heavy and urine leaks
  • Urge incontinence: You get an unexpected, powerful urge to urinate that is followed by an involuntary loss of urine. You feel the need to urinate often, including throughout the night. Urge incontinence might be caused by a minor condition, such as an infection. It could also be an indication of something more severe like a neurological disorder or diabetes
  • Overflow incontinence: Your bladder doesn’t empty completely and hence you experience frequent or constant dribbling of urine
  • Functional incontinence: You cannot get to the toilet on time due to a physical or mental impairment
  • Mixed incontinence: When you have more than one type of urinary incontinence.

This is a fairly common but very embarrassing problem for both men and women. Incontinence can range in severity from passing urine when sneezing, coughing or laughing to getting the urge to urinate so badly that you can’t get to a toilet in time. Most underlying causes are simple and easily treatable.

How you can beat it

  • You can learn to re-train your bladder: Make a note of the timings when you urinate and when you leak and see if there’s a pattern. Accordingly you ‘train’ your bladder by emptying it before an incident can occur
  • Do Kegel exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor
  • Your doctor might prescribe a device called a pessary to reposition the urethra
  • Injections, medication and surgery are some of the other ways to rectify this.
You may also like: Reverse education

Loss of balance/dizziness

Our sense of balance is something that we take for granted. Constant falling is often due to a loss of balance, which is brought about by lack of co-ordination between eye-sight and hearing. Light-headedness, dizziness and a mild to violent spinning sensation [vertigo] are some of the symptoms you need to look out for.

Loss of balance can have a variety of causes: inner ear disorders, central nervous system disorders, low blood sugar, side effects of medication, infection, cardiac problems [including low or high blood pressure], or a poorly balanced diet. If you have difficulty walking or standing on soft or uneven surfaces, it could be the result of age-related, weakened inner ear function. Falling should not be dismissed as just another effect of ageing, but should be looked into as it can be cured.

How you can beat it

  • Practise balancing exercises like yoga and T’ai Chi
  • Regular walks are also beneficial to maintain balance
  • Ensure that the floors of your house are free of clutter
  • Put in a good lighting system and fit handrails around the house
  • Place anti-skid mats in your bathroom and keep it as dry as possible
  • While getting up from a lying down position, avoid doing so with a jerk or with haste.

Normal ageing or onset of dementia

Here are some pointers to help you discern normal age-related memory changes from symptoms that may indicate dementia.

Normal ageing: There are occasional memory lapses, but you can function independently and carry out daily activities without assistance
Dementia symptom: You have trouble doing straightforward tasks like dressing, paying bills, washing dishing dishes, tiding the house and forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times before

Normal ageing: You may pause to remember directions, but can easily navigate familiar places
Dementia symptom: You get lost even in familiar places and are unable to follow directions

Normal ageing: You have difficulty finding the appropriate word sometimes, but have no trouble holding an intelligible conversation
Dementia symptom: You repeat words, phrases and stories in the same conversation

Normal ageing: Your judgment and decision-making ability remains the same as always
Dementia symptom: You might show poor judgment or act in socially inappropriate ways

This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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