Guide to Geriatric Syndromes
- Intro to Geriatric Syndromes
- Physical Function Geriatric Syndromes
- Mental Function Geriatric Syndromes
- Prevention and Observation
Intro to Geriatric Syndromes
Each stage of life brings with it special challenges and considerations, and older adults know that the “Golden Years” are no exception. Education and proper preparation can lessen the impact that geriatric syndromes have on daily life; this means watching out for warning signs of early onset symptoms as well as both preventative and active courses of treatment. Geriatric syndromes are as vast and varied as the individuals they afflict, but the tips found in the sections below are universally helpful in slowing or stopping the progression of disruptive age-related conditions throughout the body.
Physical Function Geriatric Syndromes
Some syndromes affect the body and movement of the individual and are considered physical function impairment syndromes, as opposed to mental impairment syndromes. These problems can directly cause injury or serious illness, and should be medically diagnosed and controlled as quickly and consistently as possible.
Dysphagia / Trouble Swallowing
While this issue can appear in younger patients, it’s much more common in elderly patients due to increased appearance alongside age-related issues like strokes, esophageal cancer, and Parkinson’s disease that are more likely in patients of advanced age. Dysphagia is a serious syndrome that can lead to breathing in food or liquids and subsequent pneumonia, so when swallowing issues present themselves it’s best to treat them immediately.
Warning Signs: Trouble eating, drinking, or taking medication.
Solutions: There are several methods of combating this problem, but a doctor’s diagnosis is the best route to take before attempting any - the underlying cause of dysphagia will be the best indicator if medication, surgery, or even speech therapy will produce the best results
Walking Problems / Gait Issues
As stress and age take their toll on muscles and bones, walking may not come as easily as it used to for elderly individuals. These problems can be caused by muscle tone and elasticity degeneration or even calcium deficiency or osteoporosis, but ignoring them almost inevitably makes their effects more severe.
Warning Signs: Hip pain, uneven walking patterns, frequent falls or stumbles.
Solutions: Diagnosis via a bone density test or range of motion evaluation by a doctor will uncover the base problem, which can then be addressed with dietary supplements, physical therapy, special orthopedic inserts or lifts, or pain medication to alleviate discomfort
Vision Impairments / Macular Degeneration
As computers and high definition screens demand more observation time in day-to-day life, older eyes struggle to keep up. Aging eyes are prone to a number of disorders, including retina separation and macular degeneration, both problems that carry a risk of blindness and affect how the eye perceives images. Additional problems may manifest as cataracts, the medical term for a cloudiness that obscures the lens of the eye and makes an individual sensitive to bright lights.
Warning Signs: Frequent squinting, difficulty reading, headaches, complaints about blurred vision or black spots in eyesight.
Solutions: Medical technology has advanced to a point where virtually painless surgeries and even implants are being used to combat retinal issues and general eye health, but the best defense against vision syndromes is frequent testing at an eye doctor and the use of prescription glasses or bifocals, when prescribed
The increased need for medication and supplements in older adults carries greater side effect risks, notably sleep disruption. Sleep apnea or snoring, pain from other syndromes such as arthritis or nerve damage, and even asthma can also wake a sleeper or cause them to toss and turn throughout the night, leading to listlessness or grogginess during daytime hours.
Warning Signs: Difficulty concentrating during the day, drowsiness, persistent insomnia.
Solutions: An overnight stay in an observational sleep lab is the best way to get a comprehensive diagnosis of sleep patterns, which can then be cross-examined by a doctor against current medications and patient lifestyles to determine if sleep medication is an appropriate solution.
Hearing Loss / Presbycusis
Inside the ear there is an area called the cochlea, which can become damaged with age due to lifetime exposure to loud noises, genetics, or a physical injury. When this area or the surrounding nerves are compromised, an individual experiences hearing issues ranging from difficulty distinguishing certain sounds from others to outright hearing loss.
Warning Signs: Difficulty following or contributing to a conversation, frequent requests for words to be repeated, lack of reaction to sounds in the immediate area.
Solutions: An examination is necessary to determine if the cause is, in fact, something serious and not an easily remedied condition such as impacted earwax. If a serious issue is discovered, a hearing aid may be prescribed to assist the user’s natural hearing capability.
Mental Function Geriatric Syndromes
Geriatric mental function syndromes in the elderly affect the mind, perception, and ability to interact with others. These syndromes are, unfortunately, common in older adults, especially those with other serious health concerns present in their medical history. Mental clarity and stability is important for independence and a healthy lifestyle in elderly individuals, so professional diagnosis should always be the first step if any of the symptoms below become apparent
One of the most common and devastating mental geriatric syndromes, dementia is a state of confusion or disorientation that persistently presents in an elderly individual. It can be a symptom of a larger mental disorder such as Alzheimer’s disease or a standalone age-related degeneration due to stroke, but either case demands quick, decisive treatment.
Warning Signs: Strange or unusual declarations, confusion, inability to remember short-term events.
Solutions: A handful of medications are available to slow the progression of dementia and give patients a chance to retain their independence and personal safety for longer periods of time
An elderly adult is more likely to have lived through the departure of children from the family home or loss of a spouse, making them more prone to depression due to loneliness. Long periods of time alone can exacerbate this condition and even lead to thoughts of self-harm, which is why an active social calendar is often helpful in keeping spirits high. If an individual’s late-onset depression is persistent in nature regardless of their surroundings, he or she may be suffering from a chemical imbalance.
Warning Signs: Withdrawing from social activities, a preoccupation with death or dying, a general lack of energy or enthusiasm.
Solutions: A session with a geriatric-specialized psychologist can help a depressed individual or their loved ones decide if medication or talk therapy is an appropriate course of treatment
Paranoia / Psychosis
An extremely difficult condition for loved ones to experience and cope with, paranoia and psychotic behavior may present individually or in conjunction with one another in an elderly individual. This syndrome can impair medical assistance with other health issues, as the individual often turns the focus of their paranoia on the medical professionals attempting to help them, becoming uncooperative or, at times, hysterical.
Warning Signs: Frequent accusations of misdeeds such as stealing or attempting to inflict harm, an overwhelming feeling of being watched, experiencing sights and sounds that aren’t present.
Solutions: Anti-psychotic medication can be very effective in controlling the disruptive properties of these syndromes, enabling the afflicted elderly patient to remain calm and in control of themselves
Overzealous medication prescriptions, depression, and habits from youth can all be contributing factors to senior substance abuse, which affects approximately 17% of adults over the age of 60 nationwide. Loved ones and family members may be hesitant to address this issue, citing a reluctance to anger or upset their elderly relative or take away their independence by restricting the abused substance. Unfortunately, taking too much of a medication or mixing it with alcohol can have devastating consequences, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and halting the behavior.
Warning Signs: Consciously taking more pills than prescribed, frequent alcohol drinking, disproportionately negative reactions when an addictive substance is controlled or taken away.
Solutions: Just as their younger counterparts might turn to others for help, group therapy has been shown to assist elderly substance abusers with regaining sobriety and responsible medication handling.
Prevention and Observation
Many age-related physical issues can be prevented or minimized with an active lifestyle that includes light exercise and daily stretches. Nutrition is also important in maintaining a balanced body, so an appropriate multivitamin should be taken along with a healthy diet to provide the body with the right “fuel” to keep going.
Keeping the mind fit and healthy is as important as seeing to the health of the body. Hobbies such as word searches and number puzzles, games like chess, and frequent social outings with friends or loved ones will help the brain of an older adult stay sharp regardless of its age.
The best defense against geriatric syndromes is observation and interaction with an elderly individual. Through daily, weekly, or monthly assessments and conversations, loved ones are more likely to spot warning signs and take action quickly to prevent symptoms from spreading unchecked. If a concern or “red flag” is observed, its best to discuss it with a doctor to determine if further examination is warranted or if the issue is simply a normal occurrence of aging.