Medical Warnings for the Elderly

The older you are, the more likely you are to have health problems that require first-rate medical care. As many seniors have learned, however, it can be hard to find a doctor suited to care for their special needs.

Elderly Hand Holding Cane


How can older people be sure to get good medical care? It’s important to watch out for the common mistakes doctors make when treating elderly patients.

Mistake 1: Failing to appreciate the physical changes that come with age.

Many doctors now practicing know little about the aging body and its ills. A disease that causes one set of symptoms in a young person may manifest itself quite differently in an older person. Not all doctors realize that, and a hasty doctor can easily miss the diagnosis. For example, an older person may experience a heart attack with symptoms of weakness and confusion rather than the classic chest pain that younger people experience.

Mistake 2: Urging older people to “take it easy.”

This is awful advice. Even if you’ve been disabled by a stroke or another medical problem, leading an active lifestyle helps keep you healthy and happy. Researchers at Tufts University have shown that even people in their 80s and 90s can develop big, strong muscles with a weight lifting program. Such a program can literally put a bedridden patient back on his/her feet.

Mistake 3: Being too quick to blame health problems on old age.

Doctors often assume that health problems are inevitable in the elderly. They order fewer diagnostic tests and generally treat disease less aggressively in older people than in young people. For example, if an elderly woman comes to the doctor appearing confused, he might quickly assume that she is showing early signs of dementia – when, in fact, she could be having an adverse reaction to her medication.

Mistake 4: Not giving the patient enough time.

A good doctor will take the time to ask about your personal life, as well as your medical problems, and in general make you feel taken care of. At each office visit, the doctor should ask about the symptoms you’ve reported in the past, review your response to medications and ask about new problems.

If you have a hearing problem, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to speak up. Your first visit to a new doctor should be devoted to taking a thorough medical history and conducting a physical exam and lab tests, which could take more than an hour. Once this comprehensive exam is complete, you won’t need another exam for a year – unless there’s a health crisis.

Mistake 5: Failing to advocate preventive measures.

Some doctors may think that trying to, say, lower an elderly patient’s cholesterol is useless, since “he’s just going to decline anyway.” In fact, we now know that heart patients of any age can benefit from a program of dietary modification, lifestyle change and (when necessary) drugs or surgery.

Mistake 6:  Giving inappropriate prescriptions.

Doctors are too quick to order tranquilizers and antidepressants for their older patients, presuming falsely that psychotherapy is of no use. They often fail to realize that older bodies respond differently to drugs. For example, often have multiple prescriptions and if the doctor fails to consider all of them when prescribing something new, dangerous interactions could occur. If you’re not sure your doctor knows all the drugs you’re taking, put all your meds in a paper bag and bring them to your next office visit.

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