To paraphrase a long-espoused notion, getting older certainly beats the alternative.
But even if it is impossible to completely avoid the aches, pains and other physical annoyances associated with getting older, having a greater awareness of both the onset of certain issues and the technology and treatments available to help alleviate them can go a long way in taking some of the sting out of the aging process.
We recently checked in with a few local experts in their fields to tackle three very common problem areas for seniors—sight, hearing and balance.
Dr. Vivek Chaturvedi, a retinal/vascular specialist on staff at Ingalls Health System, weighs in on one of the most common eye issues to accompany aging—macular degeneration.
What is macular degeneration?
The macula is the part of the retina where we get our sharpest vision. There are two versions of macular degeneration: dry and wet. In dry macular degeneration, there is a steady wearing-away of the macular tissue, resulting in visual impairment. This is typically a slow process that takes decades, and symptoms may include general blurred vision or an occasional “spot” in one’s central vision. In wet macular degeneration, new abnormal blood vessels develop and bleed and leak into the retina, creating a more sudden loss of vision.
What are some warning signs of macular degeneration?
New onset distortion in central visual acuity is one of the more typical symptoms of macular degeneration.
What are some of the treatments available for macular degeneration?
There currently are no treatments to slow the “wear-and-tear” nature of dry macular degeneration. However, the National Eye Institute found that certain vitamins can reduce a person’s risk of severe vision loss. Although these vitamins are available over the counter, it is best to first determine whether they would be a benefit by visiting with a retinal specialist.
For wet macular degeneration, there is a series of drugs that can slow and in some cases stop altogether the bleeding and leaking in new blood vessels. These medications are injected into the eye in our offices. The treatment is typically chronic and requires frequent follow-ups, but the medications work quite well and can often improve and preserve sight.
What steps should someone take if they think they are beginning to experience macular degeneration?
If a patient notices symptoms, he or she should contact their primary eye care provider and get a comprehensive examination. If the disease is found to be active, the patient will be referred to a retinal specialist for the appropriate care.
Most people dread the prospect of losing their hearing as they age, but Kevin Hand, the owner of Zounds Hearing in Crown Point, says that hearing aid technology has come a long way.
Why is it so important for people to pay special attention to their hearing as they age?
Hearing loss in adults is often treated as a mere inconvenience rather than a legitimate health concern. What many don’t realize is that the consequences of hearing loss reach far beyond the need to turn up the TV volume. Reduced cognitive function, poorer mental health, and social withdrawal have all been linked to decreased hearing sensitivity. In fact, a recent study by Johns Hopkins University has even found that seniors with untreated hearing loss have an increased likelihood of developing dementia.
What are some early signs of hearing loss or impairment?
The signs of hearing loss are fairly universal. For instance, people sound like they are mumbling, you often have to ask people to repeat themselves, you are told the volume on the TV or radio is too high, you struggle to understand a conversation in a large group or noisy setting, you have difficulty hearing when your back is turned away from the speaker or you experience ringing in your ears.
What are some of the latest advances in hearing aids?
Advances in hearing technology take place at a similar rate to those of TVs, computers and other electronics. In other words, the hearing aids your parents or grandparents wore in the past pale in comparison to those that are available today.
Modern hearing aids are much more discreet than in the past. In fact, you may have friends or coworkers who wear hearing aids, but the devices are so subtle that they go unnoticed. The more advanced hearing aids on the market today are also highly intuitive and increasingly effective at adjusting to the user’s environment to provide better overall clarity regardless of the surroundings. These types of devices can actually distinguish between a human voice and unwanted ambient noise.
What are one or two things about today’s hearing aids that would surprise many people?
It may surprise some to know just how adaptive hearing aids are. Today’s hearing aids are digital and can be limitlessly reprogrammed. In other words, as your hearing changes with age, your hearing aid can continuously be reprogrammed to address these changes.
What steps should someone take if they think their hearing is beginning to deteriorate?
Studies show that people often wait an extraordinary amount of time before taking action with their hearing loss, with the average wait being about 7 to10 years. Do not be intimidated by the prospect of having your ears examined and your hearing tested. Visit a local hearing clinic and have an evaluation. The exams are often available at little to no cost, and even if your hearing loss is minimal you have at least established a baseline for reference should you have your hearing tested again in the future.
A simple fall can lead to so many other potential health problems. That’s why Dr. Prasanth Nuthakki, a board-certified specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Franciscan Health, says seniors need to focus on maintaining and improving their balance.
Why is fall prevention such a major concern as we age?
Fall prevention is important as we age because falls and their related injuries, such as fractures, can significantly impact quality of life. An increased fear of falling can also lead to further functional and emotional decline, as well as feelings of helplessness.
What are some good tips for avoiding falls?
Minimize loose rugs and carpets around the home or use slip-resistant coverings. For those with poor eyesight, better lighting can be helpful. Installing grab bars in the bathroom can help with support when getting into and exiting the tub/ shower, while hand rails on both sides of staircases can also help with stability and support when going up and down.
What steps can seniors take to help improve or maintain their balance?
I believe exercise is the best advice for seniors to improve their balance. For example, activities such as tai chi emphasize slow, deliberate movements that can help improve balance and confidence. Physical therapy is also very useful to help improve posture, core strength and coordination, as well as to help identify potential risks for future falls.