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How to Unmask Chronic Illness Symptoms in The Elderly

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.” [1] 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.

Head Shot of A Man Dressed For Snow Storm
Man Dressed for Snow Storm


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.” [2]

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.” [3].

Woman Bending Down and Experiencing Shortness of Breath
Woman Experiencing Shortness of Breath

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.” [4]

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.”[5]

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. [6]

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.


  1. O’Neil, Hugh. “What’s ailing Dad? Unmasking the sneaky symptoms  that can hurt your elderly parents.” Prevention, Aug. 1995, p. 86+
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

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

12 thoughts on “How to Unmask Chronic Illness Symptoms in The Elderly

  1. Hi Thabo,
    This is a lot of great information for anyone that has elderly parents or even friends or neighbors that may be getting up there in age. I wish I had known this when my mom was getting to that age, looking back now I think there was a lot more I could have done, she would never tell us when she wasn’t feeling so great, always trying to hide it so she wouldn’t be a bother.

    1. Hi Kim,
      I think a lot of people are in your position. They have an aging parent who doesn’t want to be a bother and thus doesn’t communicate or hides the fact that she or he isn’t feeling well. Nevertheless, I’m glad this information was useful to you. Thanks for checking in.

  2. Loneliness a symptom for back pain…I would never think about this.
    Hello Thabo here I am again. I just love reading your articles, there are so many things to learn…
    Thanks for sharing . It is a very informative and educative article.
    it is very interesting how the human body works and the changes are coming with the age.
    Have a good day

    1. Cristina,
      It’s nice to hear from you again. Yes, most people would never think of loneliness as a symptom for back pain. 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. Unfortunately this means a lot of elderly people. So it’s important that they are encouraged to go outside the house and engage in daily activities. Thanks for checking in.

  3. Hi Thabo, an enlightening and informative article you have written here. I had never actually thought about elderly chronic illness (mainly because I have no elderly parents) but it does make me think of my husband’s and my personal futures as we get older…we still have a couple of decades to go, but it is always good to be aware of what to look out for.
    Knowledge is power!
    Thank you for this!

    1. Orion,
      You are blessed with good health and an empowering nature that should keep you going strong for a long time. That said, I agree with you that knowledge is power. We should all be aware of the sneaky symptoms that can hurt us as we get older. Thanks for checking in. I wish you continued good health and happiness.

  4. Outstanding post. We have found that as our Mother ages, she still remembers her training as an Registered nurse. She knows her meds and condition better than we do. There are many signs that she is not well and communicating is essential for knowing what is happening with her at any moment. We lost our Father over 18 years ago, and caring for her is what our Father would have wanted us to do. Thank you for your information.

    1. Xavier,
      It always a pleasure to hear from you. My mom is also a former Registered nurse, and fortunately she communicates with me when something is not right with her. This has allowed us to take action that has prevented symptoms from developing into more serious illness. I’m sending good thoughts about your mother and your family. Thanks for checking in.

  5. This article has vital information! It is true that we must pay attention to our elders. Many will not communicate well, and many have out-dated information and don’t recognize their own or each other’s symptoms.

    1. Dianne,

      You make a very good point about some elderly people having some out-dated information that makes it difficult to recognize their own or each other’s symptoms. Some elderly people also come from a generation that was taught to “tough things out”. They won’t tell anyone about their symptoms until it’s almost too late. I agree with you that good communication is vital to ensure us that we are always aware of the sneaky symptoms that can cause problems for our loved ones. I’m so glad that you found this article valuable. Thanks for checking in.

  6. Hello Thabo,

    Thank you for opening up my eyes – I didn’t realize that behind unease like not feeling the cold and shortness of breath could be a severe disease. Now and then I hear about elderly relatives or friends of our family, that they have fallen and broken their hand, arm or leg. Your post makes me aware of that these accidents may have happened not because of impaired vision or carelessness but more likely because of a heart attack. It is also very sad to hear that elderly often get chronical illnesses because of loneliness.

    I will for sure be more attentive and vigilant in the future.


    1. Hello Pernilla,
      A lot of people are not aware that chronic illness symptoms in the elderly can manifest differently in them than in younger people. This is why I agree with you that caregivers of seniors have to be more attentive and vigilant. Yes, I think it’s very sad when the elderly become chronically ill because of loneliness. Thanks for checking in.


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