How to Unmask Chronic Illness Symptoms in The Elderly
Unmasking the sneaky symptoms that can hurt your elderly parents is something that everyone should be aware off. However, this is not always an easy thing because there are some medical problems that sometimes have different warning signs in our elderly parents than they do in us. Thus, how to unmask chronic illness symptoms in your elderly mom or dad can be a huge challenge.
This phenomenon is called heterogeneity, which means, according to Ken Schmader, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Duke University, “We become more unlike each other as we grow older.”  This post will explore how these individualistic symptoms in the elderly can make it more difficult to understand the root causes of their chronic pain and illness, and what to do about it.
Heterogeneity and its Role in Unmasking Chronic Illness Symptoms
To understand the concept of heterogeneity as it applies to the elderly, let’s look at an example that is often given called the snow storm scenario. It goes something like this: “YOU GET STRANDED IN A SNOWSTORM overnight with your 80-year-old father. When you’re rescued the next morning, you’re freezing, but Dad doesn’t feel cold.
No, “this isn’t one of those annoying logic puzzles where somebody turns out to be a goldfish. Just two adults–both with hypothermia from exposure. But the octogenarian says he’s not cold. The explanation is that wisdom isn’t the only thing that comes with age. Sometimes, different symptoms do, too.” 
Different Symptoms as The key to Unmasking Illness in Elderly
Different symptoms means something like hypothermia can be missed in older people. Sure when you’re suffering from hypothermia you’re always going to feel like you’ve just been dumped in an ice bath —real cold. However, your elderly dad may not feel cold—though his skin will be cold to the touch. These are some of the signs you need to look for: puffiness in the face and mottled skin.
Always consider the possibility of hypothermia if your elderly relative has been exposed to the cold.
Blunting of The Thirst Response As Key to Unmasking Dehydration Symptoms in Elderly
Where cold weather can cause missed symptoms of hypothermia in the elderly, very hot weather can mask symptoms of dehydration. Here’s the deal. According to the latest medical research, as you age, the brain’s ability to judge and respond to thirst diminishes so you don’t feel the sensation of thirst. So where you may drink enough fluids on an extremely hot day, your elderly parent may not. In fact he or she may not experience any of the harsh symptoms of dehydration—just some light headedness.
If the weather is hot, you need to make sure that your parent, especially if bed-ridden, gets enough fluids.
Shortness of Breath as Missed Symptom of Heart Attack in Elderly
If you’re 40 or 50 severe chest pain may be the main symptom of a heart attack. This is also true with older people up to age 80. Where things get scary is with much older parents. Your eighty something dad or mom may be confused, dizzy, and short of breath, and having a heart attack even though he or she is not experiencing chest pain. “Often for them, shortness of breath (dyspnea) is the paramount symptom of a heart attack.” .
You need to pay a lot of attention if your elderly parent starts experiencing a shortness of breath. This becomes even more urgent if they have experienced a fall. “One sign of a heart attack can be a fall,” says Deborah Friedlander, M.D., assistant professor of geriatrics at New York Hospital–Cornell University Medical Center, New York City. “Often, the homeostatic mechanisms that keep a person in check will go before the heart attack occurs.” 
If an elderly parent starts experiencing falls, you may want to check with a heart and lung specialist to assess the risk of a heart attack.
Loneliness as a Missed Symptom of Back Pain
Those who keep up with my website know that I have written extensively on the causes of back pain. Sometimes back pain can be the result of too much seating, or wearing the wrong shoes. with elderly people, back pain and other chronic conditions can be caused by loneliness.
How Feeling Lonely can harm Your elderly Parent’s health
Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but new research suggests that those of us who experience persistent loneliness–an estimated one in five Americans–may face major health consequences.
“A recent study, conducted by researchers at MGH and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, suggests that chronic loneliness among older adults may increase vulnerability to memory problems and dementia.”
Physical problems such as disturbed sleep, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, ulcers, respiratory conditions, poor immune function, headache, low back pain, and abdominal pain are related to long-term loneliness, as well.
Make time for an older relative, especially if he or she has recently lost a partner, who seems lonely. You may be saving them from a whole host of health problems.
Now you know what to look for when it comes to unmasking chronic illness symptoms in your elderly parents. Remember that the information that I have shared with you is not by any means exhaustive. For example, in 2004 a team of doctors and researchers at the University of Alberta (U of A), Canada, discovered that vertebral fractures often go undiagnosed or unreported when elderly patients get chest X-rays to check for other health problems. This happened because those elderly didn’t feel the pain that would indicate they had vertebral fractures. 
Before I leave you, let me share with you one more important tip:
Practice what I call VWL—vigilance with love. Your elderly parents may not keep you in the loop as to what is going on with their health.They may be afraid that you’ll think they are just complaining. Worse they may be embarrassed and not give the doctor all the information needed to effectively treat their chronic condition.
This is where you need to step up and give some VWL. To get even better results, you’ll also want to take the time to listen to all their concerns.
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I like to hear from the readers so please leave me a comment below to let me know if this post helped you or if you have any questions.
- O’Neil, Hugh. “What’s ailing Dad? Unmasking the sneaky symptoms that can hurt your elderly parents.” Prevention, Aug. 1995, p. 86+
Loneliness: A major challenge Among older adults; research suggests that chronically feeling lonely can harm seniors’ mental and physical health.” Mind, Mood, & Memory, Apr. 2016, p.3.
“Vertebral fractures are under-reported in elderly patients.” Managed Care Weekly, 29 march. 2004, p. 136