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Guide to Age-related Illness in Tennessee

It’s natural to have health concerns as you age, but there are certain issues we may need to pay extra attention to here in Tennessee. A recent report found that nearly 40% of Tennesseans 65 and older have 4+ chronic health conditions, which means many of us are working to manage multiple health issues every day.

WellTuned talked to Dr. Catherine Payne, a BlueCross medical director and expert on aging, about 6 health issues to be aware of.

1. Falls, mobility and social isolation

Falls are the most common cause of injury for Tennessee older adults, and they affect everything from mobility to self-esteem. While the national goal is to have less than 4.7% of seniors visiting the ER due to falls every year, our current rate in Tennessee is 7%.

Falls are caused by multiple factors including:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Loss of vision or hearing
  • Lack of core strength or stability
  • Drops in blood pressure due to medication

“Older adults who fall are 2-3 times more likely to fall again,” says Dr. Payne. “Afterwards, they may be less likely to leave their home because they’re scared they’re going to fall again, or they may stay at home simply because they don’t like being dependent on a wheelchair or walker in public. No one likes to feel weak or like they’ve lost their independence, and we have to work hard to make sure our seniors don’t feel that way.”

Issues may also arise when seniors attempt to walk for exercise, which 26% have difficulty doing. Add to that the fact that many live alone in a car-dependent state, and it’s easy to understand how mobility issues can quickly become emotional issues [link to loneliness article].

Address it:

  • Learn how to prevent falls with these 12 tips.
  • Find a park near you and schedule a time to walk with a friend or family member.
  • See if your local community center offers chair or water aerobics or other programs that can help you build core strength. Many offer discounts for seniors.
  • Talk to your doctor about a bone density test if you’re 50+ and have recently broken a bone.

2. Vision problems

Two of the biggest vision problems Tennessee seniors face as they age are macular degeneration and cataracts.

  • Macular degeneration is a condition where you lose the central part of your vision, making it hard or impossible to read or drive.
  • Cataracts are the clouding of the eye’s lens, which we see with increased frequency in Tennessee due to our large diabetic population (13%).

Address it:

Everyone over age 40 needs an annual eye exam so your doctor can monitor problems, suggest ways to improve your vision and diagnose chronic health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. Cataracts in particular are often fully correctable via surgery, so keep up with your eye appointments and to take a key proactive step in your long-term vision health.

3. Flu and pneumonia

Seasonal influenza virus (flu) and pneumonia cause long-term health problems for 70-85% of Tennessee seniors, yet only 51% get flu shots annually.

Address it:

Get the annual influenza vaccine, which is covered by Medicare and most insurance carriers including BlueCross. And ask your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine as well — you don’t need one every year, but it’s always a good idea to ask if you’re due.

4. Heart disease and stroke

Cardiovascular disease is still Tennessee’s #1 cause of death, and it’s caused by a number of factors:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Address it:

Exercise, eat healthy and don’t smoke. It’s a straightforward “prescription,” so to speak, but it’s the most challenging to put into practice because each step takes work every day.

5. Declining mental health

More than 1 million Tennesseans are over 65, and advanced age means increasing odds of cognitive decline from conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, as well as chronic mental health issues such as depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Address it:

6. Parenting grandchildren

More than 77,000 grandparents in Tennessee are raising their grandchildren, which creates stress on many levels.

“Parenting at an older age takes a toll emotionally, financially and physically,” says Dr. Payne. “As a senior, you may develop a disability or you may be taking care of a child who has one. Things that were easy the first time around, such as lifting a child into or out of bed, are considerably harder and may even be dangerous if you try to do them on your own. We want grandparents to know that they don’t have to do it all on their own.”

Address it:

Know your limitations and ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to your primary care provider (PCP) about resources in your area.

Overall, Dr. Payne suggests these 6 key steps to aging healthily:

  1. Create a good relationship with your PCP.
    Find someone you trust, who makes you feel comfortable and who fosters an open discussion. It may take months or years to find the right person, but it’s worth your time to build a good relationship.
  2. Don’t skip preventive care.
    Get the appropriate screenings for cancer, vision, osteoporosis, breast and prostate cancer.
  3. Get vaccinated for the flu and pneumonia.
  4. Ask for help — physical or mental — when you need it.
  5. Stay active.
  6. Stay socially connected. 

For tips on staying connected socially, click here.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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