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Age-related Diseases

Which Conditions Are More Common As We Age?


Updated April 15, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Age-related diseases are illnesses and conditions that occur more frequently in people as they get older, meaning age is a significant risk factor. According to David Hogan, gerontologist and professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, examples of age-related diseases are:

1. Cardiovascular Disease

Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, and among the leading causes of death in many other countries. The most common form is coronary artery disease, which involves a narrowing or blockage of the main arteries supplying the heart with blood. Obstructions can develop over time, or quickly—as in an acute rupture—and cause potentially fatal heart attacks.

2. Cerebrovascular Disease (Strokes)

A stroke happens when blood stops flowing in one area of the brain because of a disruption in one of the blood vessels. It is very serious, because brain cells deprived of oxygen in the blood begin to die very quickly.

There are two types of strokes. The most common is called an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel. The second type is called a hemorrhagic stroke, and is caused when a blood vessel ruptures and bleeds in the brain.

Strokes can cause death or serious disability, depending on the location and severity of the blockage or rupture.

3. High Blood Pressure - Hypertension

Blood pressure is the force blood exerts on the walls inside your arteries as your heart pumps. It's lower when you're sleeping or are at rest, and higher when you're stressed or excited — though it tends to rise generally with age. Chronically-elevated blood pressure can cause serious problems for your heart, blood vessels, kidneys and other systems in the body.

4. Cancer

One of the biggest risk factors for many types of cancer, in which abnormal cells grow uncontrollably, is age. According to the American Cancer Society, 77% of all cancers are diagnosed in people over the age of 55. In Canada, cancer represents the leading cause of death for both men and women.

A number of types of cancer are more common as we age, including skin, breast, lung, colorectal, prostate, bladder, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and stomach cancers.

5. Type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes is a disorder that disrupts the way your body uses glucose, or sugar, from the food it digests. In Type 1 diabetes, which typically begins in people under the age of 30, no insulin is produced. The far more common Type 2 diabetes involves sufficient insulin—but an acquired resistance to it—so glucose is not processed properly by the body. Both types of diabetes lead to blood sugar levels that are too high, which can lead to serious problems like heart attack, stroke, nerve damage, kidney failure and blindness.

Thanks to rising rates of obesity, along with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and inadequate nutrition, Type 2 diabetes is on the rise. Fortunately, adopting healthier habits like regular exercise, and eating a well-balanced diet, can keep blood glucose levels in a normal range, and prevent declining health.

6. Parkinson's Disease

Named after the British physician who first described it in the early 1800s, this progressive neurological disorder causes tremors, stiffness, and halting movement. Three-quarters of all cases of Parkinson's Disease begin after the age of 60, though age is only one risk factor. Men are more likely than women to get PD, as are people with a family history of the disease—or those who've been exposed to certain chemical toxins. Head injuries may also play a role.

7. Dementia (including Alzheimer's Disease)

Characterized by a loss of brain functioning, dementia can manifest as memory loss, mood changes, confusion, difficulty communicating, or poor judgement. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, but there are a number of other causes, including vascular dementia (due to impaired blood flow to the brain), Huntington's disease, and dementia associated with Parkinson's Disease. While the incidence of dementia increases with age, it is not considered a natural part of the aging process.

8. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) cannot be cured, but it can be treated, and perhaps more importantly, prevented. The condition is characterized by a reduction of airflow into and out of the lungs, thanks to inflammation in the airways, thickening of the lining of the lungs, and an over-production of mucus in the air tubes. Symptoms include a worsening, chronic and productive cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath. The main cause of COPD is chronic exposure to airborne irritants like tobacco smoke (either as a primary smoker or second-hand), occupational contaminants, or industrial pollution. Cigarette smoking remains the most significant risk factor.

9. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease, and the most common form of arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs more commonly as people age, and it's more prevalent in women. Being obese or having had a prior joint injury also makes you more susceptible.

Characterized by swelling and pain in the joints, osteoarthritis cannot yet be cured, but it can be treated with pain-relieving or anti-inflammatory medications, as well as through lifestyle modifications like weight loss, exercise and physiotherapy.

10. Osteoporosis

Also known as "brittle bone disease," osteoporosis is characterized by bone-mass loss, which leads to thinning and weakening bones. It gets more common with age, especially in Caucasian and Asian women. Having osteopenia, or low bone density, is also a risk factor. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, as many as half of all women over the age of 50—and a quarter of men in that age group—will break a bone because of osteoporosis. Bone breaks like hip fractures are a very serious problem for older adults, resulting in a loss of mobility, independence, and in about a quarter of all cases, death within a year of the injury.

Regular weight-bearing exercise, eating a diet rich in calcium and Vitamin D, and not smoking can all help prevent osteoporosis.

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