In general, aging people are not more "sickly" than the rest of the population. In fact, bouts with typical infectious diseases over the years have armed many of them with protective antibodies. Children with less buffered immune systems and regular exposure to "bugs" through day care centers, recreation programs, dancing classes, school, etc., typically do a lot more sniffing, sneezing, coughing and wheezing than their grandparents. This is partly offset by the elders' years of exposure to pollen and molds, which saddles some of them with allergies that produce the same effects.
The health problems of older people that most often come to people's minds are sometimes called "functional" disorders. This means that the body fails to do what it is designed to do and needs to do if the person is to live and do well. Biological gerontologists have come up with some plausible theories about how and why this happens, but final answers are elusive.
Among the most obvious "problems" that come with aging are changes in the skin, vision, hair and nails. Vision problems, typically near-sightedness, are significant but correctable. Cataracts affect the old more than the young, but corrective surgery is now routine. If fear of "looking old" grips people as years slip by, these changes escalate from normal to catastrophic, leading to a booming economy of age-denying cosmetics, medications and plastic surgery. Those who are free from that fear or who cannot afford the remedies wind up looking older, which is the way nature works.
Heart attacks and other diseases of the heart and blood vessels, strokes, arthritis, worn-out hips and knees, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, senile dementia and permanent disability due to falls are real health problems that affect older people more than they do others. While various types of cancer attack people of all ages, the elders come in for their share and maybe more.
What a mouthful! But it covers a lot of ground - make that body. It includes the heart and all of the circulatory system down to the capillaries in the brain, which may pop and cause a stroke. Heart muscles, like all other muscles, change and deteriorate. They are the hardest working muscles in the body, pumping along even when the body is fully resting. Heart valves open and shut, open and shut constantly. Walls of blood vessels thicken and harden.
Plaque - made up of fats, minerals, etc., that swim in the blood flowing through the system - builds up on vessel walls. This "hardening of the arteries" can dam them completely, make them fragile, cause the heart to work harder to keep circulation going. Lots of bad things can and do happen: heart attacks, malfunctioning heart muscles, valves that don't work, strokes, aneurisms and frailty and mental issues that happen because a "bad heart" fails to provide enough oxygen to the body.
Cardiovascular illnesses are tough, but many can be remedied by surgery, pacemakers, physical therapy, exercise and appropriate diet. Still, people die of these conditions and, even after the best of interventions, the victims are diminished. Early treatment with some new medications saves stroke victims who would have died just a few years ago. Some of these have few lingering effects, but others are still drastically disabled and require much care and support. Perhaps the best treatment for all of these is prevention through regular exercise and healthy eating from cradle to grave, which likely will come from some other cause than those above.
Alzheimer's disease demands attention because (1) it does awful things to people; (2) little is known about what it is and its cause; (3) there is no cure, few useful interventions; and (4) the cost of caring for its victims is incalculable in terms of heartbreak and money for family, other care givers, the healthcare system and government at every level.
On a personal note, it is one of the few things that scare me; I am not afraid of dying, except not that way. I cannot remember anyone afflicted in this way during the first 30 years of my life. Now every nursing home has a wing for folks with dementia, one where no one wants to go either as patient or staff. Thousands of others are cared for at home by loved ones who are being drained emotionally and financially.
Diabetes and arthritis are also major problems, but we have only begun to see the devastation soon to come from these and other issues created by the obesity epidemic.
While the "How are you?" question leads to an "organ recital" from some seniors, so many of the afflicted say, "Just fine." The sight of a cane or walker in hand seems to contradict that response, but they have learned to cope and accept a "new normal." Or they refuse to let disability define who they are and focus on things that are important to them.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.