The Top 4 Most Common Chronic Illnesses and How They Affect Older Adults

June 2022

Aging is a fact of life. And with it comes an increased risk of developing a chronic illness. Chronic illnesses are health conditions that last a year or longer. Some 80% of older adults live with at least one chronic illness, and it’s estimated that 68% live with more than two.

Here are the four most common chronic illnesses in older adults, how they affect you, and what you can do about them.

High Blood Pressure

As you age, your arteries lose elasticity, becoming more resistant to the flow of blood. When your heart has to pump blood through rigid, narrowing arteries, your blood pressure increases.

Consistently high blood pressure damages the artery walls. If left untreated, this can lead to serious complications, including heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure.

Signs and symptoms:

Often called the “silent killer,” high blood pressure shows no signs or symptoms. It can only be detected using a pressure-measuring gauge, which is often part of a routine medical checkup.

How to manage it:


Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that attacks the joints. As cartilage, ligaments, and joint lining break down, the bones start to rub together. Osteoarthritis primarily affects the hands, neck, lower back, hips, and knees.

One in seven adults in the U.S. is affected by osteoarthritis. And it’s the second most common chronic illness in older adults after high blood pressure.

Signs and symptoms:

  • Pain, stiffness, tenderness, or swelling in your joints
  • Popping or clicking sounds when you move a joint
  • Muscle weakness around a joint (or a joint “giving out”)
  • Limited range of motion

Adults with osteoarthritis are also at a greater risk of falling.

How to manage it:

There is no cure, but pain medication and anti-inflammatory drugs can help manage symptoms. Exercises focused on balance, strength building, and stretching can help support and take stress off the joints. In severe cases, your doctor may recommend joint replacement.

Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease affects the heart and blood vessels. Coronary heart disease, arrhythmia, and congestive heart failure are all examples of cardiovascular disease.

As plaque builds up along the artery walls, the arteries become narrower, making it more difficult for blood to pass through. This can lead to blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, or other complications.

Signs and symptoms:

Because cardiovascular disease encompasses such a wide range of conditions, symptoms can vary; however, they may include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • An irregular or quickened heartbeat
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

How to manage it:


Diabetes interferes with the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. There are three types of diabetes: Type 1, Type 2, and gestational. Type 2 is the likeliest to affect older adults.

Type 2 diabetes prevents the body from effectively using insulin, the hormone responsible for distributing blood sugar throughout the body. Blood sugar levels remain elevated, wreaking havoc on the eyes, teeth, nerves, gums, and kidneys over time. It also increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, falls, kidney disease, and amputation.

Signs and symptoms:

  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent urination
  • Tingling, numbness, or pain in the hands and feet
  • Excessive hunger or thirst

How to manage it:

Eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight will help keep your blood sugar in check. It’s important to keep tabs on your blood sugar levels throughout the day. Your doctor may also prescribe medication to help lower your blood sugar levels.

Treatment Is Key

Dealing with a chronic illness can be a challenge. But with proper ongoing treatment, your golden years can be your best ones yet.

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