Good health in old age

Good health in old age

Not only are we living longer than ever, more and more of us are staying healthy into old age; however, some medical conditions do get more common as you reach your fifties and sixties. Here are a few tips to help you tease out the serious from the easily solved.

Polymyalgia Rheumatica

We all get the odd ache and pain, but Polymyalgia Rheumatica (PMR) is more than that. It usually causes muscle aches in the shoulders and upper arms, which are there all the time. It’s diagnosed with a simple blood test, called an ESR. Once it’s diagnosed, it’s treated with steroid tablets, which should relieve your symptoms in days. You'll probably need to take them for a couple of years, but may be able to reduce your initial does slowly, under your doctor's supervision, after a few months. 


As the years go by and we get a little less energetic, it’s not uncommon to put on a few inches around the tummy. This can happen because you’ve put on weight generally, or because your muscle tone isn’t what it was. For some women, going through the menopause can trigger a redistribution of fat.

Bloating is also a common symptom of digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS often causes tummy pain (classically made better by opening your bowels). You may be constipated or have diarrhoea, or even alternate between the two. However, if you develop any of these symptoms for the first time and they last for more than a few days, you should always see your GP. That’s because some more serious conditions, including cancer of the ovary, can cause similar problems.

Change in bowel habit

Constipation becomes more common as you get older – but fortunately, it’s rarely due to a serious underlying cause. Common causes include:

  • Being less physically active.
  • Not eating enough fibre (fruit, veg, pulses and beans, wholemeal foods, etc).
  • Not drinking enough fluid (this is especially common in hot weather as you get older).

If you don’t have any other symptoms, it’s safe to try increasing your fibre or fluid intake, or your activity levels, rather than seeing your doctor.

A change in bowel habit towards looser stools needs more urgent action. That’s because it can be a symptom of bowel cancer – especially if you have other symptoms like dark blood in the stool, weight loss or loss of appetite. Fortunately, although you’ll probably need to have it investigated, most people have a much less worrying cause. But if you have looser stools for more than a couple of weeks, do see your GP.

Ankle swelling

Ankles not quite as slim as they were? Swollen ankles are a common problem not only in pregnancy, but later in life as well. There are several reasons for this which you don’t need to worry about, including:

  • Varicose veins.
  • Hot weather.
  • Not being as active as you used to be.
  • Some tablets (especially a group of medicines for high blood pressure, called the calcium-channel blockers – the most common is amlodipine).

As a rule, if your ankles only swell towards the end of the day, it’s unlikely there’s a serious cause. Occasionally, swollen ankles can be a symptom of heart failure (where your heart doesn’t pump as efficiently as it should). Other symptoms of this condition include shortness of breath on exercise and on lying flat; tiredness; and sometimes waking at night gasping for breath.

It’s worth getting swollen ankles checked out with your GP. If no serious cause is found, staying active, exercising your calves regularly and keeping your legs up when you’re resting can all help. Ideally, lie on the sofa and put your legs up over one of its arms, so your feet are above the level of your heart.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Egton Medical Information Systems Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.