Fatigue is a common symptom of aging that is often ignored or attributed to another condition, but when left untreated, fatigue in the elderly can lead to a decline in normal functioning. While there is no one succinct definition of fatigue, it may be generally characterized by feelings of weariness, tiredness, a persistent lack of energy, and weakness. To find out how fatigue affects the elderly and how it can be treated, continue reading below.
Fatigue is often considered to be a symptom rather than a condition and is different from general drowsiness, confusion, and excessive sleepiness. Many elderly patients use these symptoms interchangeably, making it difficult for their physicians to discern whether what they are experiencing is truly fatigue and if intervention is needed. Older adults are more likely to experience a reduction in certain hormone levels as well as suffer from chronic diseases, which increases the likelihood that they will experience fatigue.
A 2008 study conducted by Columbia University found that adults aged 65 and older who suffered from fatigue were also more likely to suffer from joint problems, urinary incontinence, hearing problems, depression, and social isolation. While common, the researchers asserted that lack of energy and persistent fatigue should not be viewed as normal and can also be associated with heart disease, kidney problems, pulmonary issues, as well as arthritis and anemia.
Fatigue may affect the elderly on a number of levels. Physically, they may have issues completing normal activities, need extended periods of rest, have an increased risk of falling, and have difficulty coordinating their movements. Mentally, symptoms may arise in the form of reduced alertness, decreased concentration, and an increase in forgetfulness. Symptoms may also be experienced emotionally, with fatigue patients feeling irritable and being quicker to anger, more depressed, and more isolated.
In the elderly, fatigue can be caused by a variety of underlying issues. Generally, fatigue occurs when the body’s metabolism, oxygen supply, hormone levels, or mental and emotional state are disrupted. Some of the most common causes include depression, issues with blood circulation, impaired breathing (for example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), hormone imbalances like hypothyroidism, malnutrition, and metabolic issues like diabetes mellitus.
Certain medical conditions and chronic diseases may also cause fatigue in the elderly. Some of these conditions include:
Anemia. This occurs when you have a low red blood cell count, making your body have to work harder in order to get your cells the oxygen they need. This can result in fatigue due to the extra strain on your body.
Sleep disorders. Sleep disorders like sleep apnea interfere with sleep cycles and can create disturbances throughout the night that prevents the sufferer from achieving meaningful rest. This lack of proper sleep over a period of time may lead to fatigue.
Thyroid issues. Hypothyroidism is more common with age and is characterized by lower thyroid function than normal. Those with hypothyroidism may experience fatigue along with weight gain, constipation, and hair loss.
Inflammatory disorders. Issues tied to inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, can cause fatigue, as well as joint stiffness and pain.
Cancer. Cancer cells grow and spread rapidly, which can use a lot of an individual’s energy resources and leave them feeling fatigued.
Chronic fatigue syndrome. Chronic fatigue syndrome does not have a known trigger but can cause someone to experience fatigue persistently over the course of many months and years.
Chronic Infection. Chronic infections such as tuberculosis and HIV can cause significant fatigue in patients.
If you have been experiencing fatigue, it is important to talk to your doctor in order to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing this lack of energy. Once you are sure the cause is not related to a health issue, it may be beneficial to try one or more of the following tips to help boost your energy.
Exercise. When you’re exhausted, exercising may be the furthest thing from your mind, but research shows that physical activity can boost your energy levels and help you shake off that fatigue. Regular exercise can improve the function of your heart, lungs, and muscles as well as increase your stamina for other activities.
Hydrate. Not getting enough water and allowing yourself to become dehydrated can cause fatigue and make it harder for you to perform daily tasks and chores. Not getting enough water can also decrease alertness and concentration, therefore, it is important to stay hydrated for both your physical and mental states.
Sleep. Getting enough sleep can prevent you from feeling fatigue and drowsiness that may impact your daily functioning. If you find you are unable to get a sufficient amount of sleep through the night, it may be a good idea to take a short nap during the day to boost your energy.
Lose weight. Carrying around excess weight can exhaust your body’s energy stores faster than if you were a healthy weight. Losing weight will not only increase your energy, but relieve any extra strain upon your heart.
Eat frequently. Eating small meals and snacks every three to four hours throughout the day can keep your metabolism working and boost your energy. Ensure these are healthy, balanced foods in order to feel the most benefits.
Fatigue in the elderly may lead to complications that impact daily functioning and increase a patient’s risk of heart disease, kidney problems, depression, arthritis, and pulmonary disorders. This fatigue may be attributed to other medical conditions such as sleep issues, cancer, anemia, and inflammatory disorders. If you are experiencing fatigue, be sure to inform your doctor so they may rule out any medical issues and suggest lifestyles changes to help boost your energy.