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The 6 Common Mistakes Doctors Make When Treating Older Patients -- and How to Prevent Them

There were over 36 million older people (65 or older, for this definition) in the United States in 2004, a group that makes up more than 12 percent of the population. By 2030, people aged 65 and older will account for 20 percent.

elderly health doctors

Getting older doesn't mean your health will fail, so don't let a doctor tell you that your symptoms are due to "old age."

With age comes greater wisdom, experience and, hopefully, contentment with your life, but it may also increase your likelihood of needing to visit a doctor. Unfortunately, at a time when health care may be needed most -- in your later years -- is when patients may be most at risk.

Whether this scenario applies to you, a family member or another loved one, watch out for these common mistakes that doctors may make with elderly patients; they are ALL preventable.

1. "It's Old Age" Syndrome

If the doctor (incorrectly) assumes that the patient's achy joints, forgetfulness, headaches, vision problems, etc. are just symptoms of old age, it may be time to find another doctor. Contrary to popular opinion, getting older does not mean that you automatically have pain, are not as sharp mentally and are generally in poor health.

Demand that your doctor dig to find the underlying cause of the problem, or choose another doctor who will. An elderly patient deserves the same level of diagnostic techniques and treatment options as a younger one.

2. Neglecting to Discuss Preventive Health Care

Doctors may, consciously or subconsciously, neglect to inform elderly patients how to stay healthy and prevent disease, thinking that they are "old already" so "it's too late."

Says Dr. Robert Butler, aging expert and president and CEO of the International Longevity Center, "Heart patients of any age can benefit from a program of dietary modification, lifestyle change and -- if necessary -- medication or surgery."

The same holds true for many other afflictions. If the doctor does not bring up preventive health care, elderly patients (and their younger counterparts) should ask their doctor specifically about preventive steps that can be taken.

3. Telling Patients to "Take it Easy"

Often, keeping to an active lifestyle is the best thing to keep an elderly patient healthy. However, doctors may mistakenly recommend that the patient "take it easy."

"Even people in their 80s and 90s can develop big, powerful muscles with a program of weight lifting," says Butler.

4. Not Asking Enough Questions

For an elderly patient, finding a patient and devoted doctor is especially important. Just as some doctors may dismiss symptoms to old age, older patients may too shrug off symptoms as their expectations about their health decrease. They may not want to "bother" a doctor with complaints they think are minor, or they may not mention a symptom because they think there's nothing that can be done, or they're afraid of what they may find out.

In this case, a doctor's perseverance and attention to detail can make all the difference between a correct diagnosis and treatment, and sending the patient home prematurely.

When choosing a doctor to stick with, use your instinct: Do you feel taken care of? If not, keep looking.

elderly health doctors

Does your doctor make you feel taken care of? If not, find one who does.

5. Making Medication Errors

Elderly patients are especially vulnerable to medication errors. First off, they are more likely to be taking multiple prescriptions -- five out of six older Americans take at least one medication, and nearly half take three or more, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- which raises the risk of adverse drug reactions (ADRs).

Nursing home residents alone suffer 350,000 ADRs a year, according to the Institute of Medicine. And, in 2000, elderly patients were prescribed inappropriate medications at almost 8 percent of doctor visits, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found.

Also, drugs affect the elderly differently, so the doctor must be sure to give the correct dosage. For instance, Valium will remain in an older person's body twice as long as in a young person.

Finally, some doctors are quick to prescribe antidepressants or tranquilizers to older patients, says Butler, under the mistaken assumption that counseling would not help.

It is therefore essential that the doctor check specifically for any possible interactions between a patient's prescriptions, and ensure that it is prescribed in the correct dosage. As a further safety check, ask your pharmacist about any possible drug interactions when picking up your prescriptions.

You may also want to ask your doctor about drug alternatives, such as psychotherapy for depression.

6. Speaking Too Quickly and Using Jargon

It is difficult for an elderly patient to follow a doctor's advice if he or she does not understand it. Nonetheless, some doctors may speak quickly, check off a list of instructions and use words like MRI or CAT scan, which older patients may not be familiar with.

A doctor should take extra time to ensure that an elderly patient understands what is being said, by speaking clearly and slowly, explaining any terms that may be confusing, and asking the patient if they understand.

As a patient, bringing along a family member can help in remembering what is said, along with a pen and paper to take notes. Elderly patients should also voice any concerns they have and ask the doctor to repeat or rephrase anything that they do not understand.

Recommended Reading

The Five Most Dangerous Medicine Mistakes that Way Too Many People Make

The Serious Health Risks of Loneliness & The Healing Power of Friendship


Department of Health and Human Services: Administration on Aging

National Institute on Aging

Bottom Line Secrets

National Center for Health Statistics

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