The information on the topics below will help you better understand specific diseases, conditions, or wellness areas.
Some topics feature definitions on the disease, identify symptoms, and discuss treatment options. Other topics simply discuss ways to help you live a more healthy life.
Arthritis Back to top
Arthritis — the leading cause of disability among adults in the U.S. — is not a single disease; it’s an informal way of referring to joint pain or joint disease. By conservative estimates, about 54 million adults have doctor-diagnosed arthritis, and it’s more common in women (26 percent) than in men (18 percent).
The risk of arthritis increases with age: Over one-third of adults in the U.S. with arthritis are 65 years or older.
There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions. Common types are:
- Osteoarthritis (or degenerative): associated with cartilage wearing down, resulting in bone on bone joint movement
- Rheumatoid (or inflammatory): immune system attacks joints with uncontrolled inflammation
- Infectious: bacteria or a virus enters the joint and triggers inflammation
- Lupus: immune system attacks tissues and organs
- Fibromyalgia: pain in muscles and soft tissues
- Gout: uric acid builds up to cause intense pain
A combination of family history and physical activity can lead to different forms of arthritis. Risk factors also include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a history of joint injuries or serious infections
- Working in a job that requires repetitive motions
Arthritis causes joint pain, stiffness, and/or swelling. These symptoms can feel mild, ongoing, or intense and surging. Arthritis can also cause other problems that may seem unrelated, like fatigue or a rash.
Diagnosing arthritis is difficult, given so many different types and possible symptoms. If you feel joint symptoms, you should see a doctor to check them out. Your primary care doctor will examine you for some of the more common forms of arthritis, and may refer you to a rheumatologist or an orthopedist.
A rheumatologist is an arthritis specialist, and will do a comprehensive assessment of your joints. An orthopedist is a joint specialist, and will evaluate the physical or mechanical causes of your joint pain to determine if you need surgery, like a knee or hip replacement.
You can also expect some tests. X-rays are the most frequent method to see joints. Your doctors may also use ultrasound or MRIs, which can identify structural issues, cartilage loss, soft tissue tears, or bone fragments. You may also need a blood test to check your levels of inflammation, the presence of antibodies to fight infection, and how your liver and kidneys are functioning.
Your doctor will probably recommend some things you can do at home, such as using heat and cold to soothe pain, resting the joint regularly, and protecting it from strain and overuse.
Arthritis cannot be cured, but early detection and treatment may help improve your quality of life. You can delay the most damaging effects if you:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Follow a moderate daily exercise plan
- Avoid activities that could lead to injury
- Protect joints from repetitive overuse
Treatment choices also vary depending on the type of arthritis you have. Most options focus on controlling pain and minimizing joint damage. You may need:
- Physical or occupational therapy
- Braces, splints, or other joint protection aids
- Weight loss
- Alternative care, such as acupuncture
For more facts about arthritis, check out the Arthritis Foundation website.
Bladder Control/Incontinence Back to top
What is Urinary Incontinence?
- Urinary incontinence is the loss of bladder control.
- Urine is stored in a balloon-like organ — the bladder. Urine leaves the body through a tube called the urethra.
- When bladder muscles tighten without warning, or the muscles at the base of the urethra relax without warning, you can have leakage.
- The severity ranges from occasionally leaking urine when you cough or sneeze to having an urge to urinate that’s so sudden and strong you are not able to get to a toilet in time.
Incontinence is more common than many people think. In fact, over 50 percent of people aged 65 and over who live at home experience incontinence.* It affects more women than men, and women may experience it more severely.
The two most common forms of incontinence are:
- Urge incontinence: When the bladder muscles are too active, causing frequent urges to urinate — even when the bladder is not full
- Stress incontinence: When the bladder muscles weaken, causing urine loss due to sneezing, laughing, or lifting
Many factors can cause incontinence, such as:
- Growing older: Pelvic and sphincter muscles get weaker.
- Nerve damage: This could be due to diabetes, trauma, and other conditions.
- Weight gain: Weight increases pressure on the bladder.
- Prostate problems: This is very common among older men.
- Urinary infections: These can increase the tendency for incontinence.
- Constipation: This also increases pressure on the bladder.
- Medications: Some over-the-counter medications can cause incontinence.
- Lifestyle: Caffeine, alcohol, and other liquids can cause incontinence.
Your doctor understands the medical causes of incontinence. You may be asked to answer questions such as:
- How often do you empty your bladder?
- How many times do you wake up at night to empty your bladder?
- What prescription or over-the-counter medication do you take?
- How much caffeine, alcohol, and other liquids do you drink daily?
- Do you have any pain or burning when you urinate?
Have you had abdominal, prostate, hysterectomy, or childbirth-related surgery?
The good news is: help is available. Depending on your individual needs, your doctor may focus on:
- Lifestyle changes to help improve bladder control
- Exercises to strengthen the bladder with Kegel exercises
- Treating existing conditions such as diabetes, constipation, and prostate problems
- Referring you to a specialist, such as a urologist
- Prescribing medication that helps improve bladder control
Talk to your doctor to find the treatment that is right for you. The sooner you call your doctor, the sooner you can start getting more from life.
For more information, please visit the Mayo Clinic website.
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) Back to top
What is High Blood Pressure?
- Blood pressure is a measure of how hard your blood pushes against your artery walls as it moves through your body.
- It’s normal for blood pressure to go up and down throughout the day, but if it stays up, you have high blood pressure. Another name for high blood pressure is hypertension.
Your blood pressure consists of two numbers:
- The first number measures the force as your heart beats. This is called systolic pressure.
- The second number measures the force as your heart relaxes. This is called diastolic pressure.
Someone with a systolic pressure of 120 and a diastolic pressure of 80 has a blood pressure of 120/80, or “120 over 80.”
An ideal blood pressure for an adult is less than 120/80. You have high blood pressure if your top number is 130 or higher, or your bottom number is 80 or higher, or both.
In most cases, doctors can’t point to the exact cause. However, several things are known to raise blood pressure, including:
- Age: The risk rises as you age. Through early middle age, high blood pressure is more common in men. Women are more likely to develop it after menopause.
- Family history
- Being overweight or obese: The more you weigh, the more blood you need to bring nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood goes up, so does the pressure against artery walls.
- Not being physically active: Inactive people tend to have faster heart rates. That makes the force of blood against your arteries harder.
- Using tobacco: Tobacco use immediately raises your blood pressure on a temporary basis. In addition, the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls.
- Too much salt
- Too little potassium
- Too little vitamin D
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Stress: High levels of stress can lead to a temporary, but dramatic, rise in blood pressure.
Certain chronic conditions: including high cholesterol, diabetes, kidney disease, and sleep apnea.
High blood pressure can lead to heart attack, stroke, and other problems. High blood pressure is called a “silent killer,” because it doesn’t usually cause symptoms while it’s causing this damage. Most people don’t know they have it until they go to the doctor for some other reason.
Very high blood pressure can cause some symptoms, such as headaches, dizzy spells, or more nosebleeds than normal. But these signs don’t usually occur until it reaches a severe stage. By the time these signs appear, high blood pressure may be life-threatening.
Because there are usually no symptoms, it’s important to have your blood pressure measured regularly.
Changing your lifestyle can help. If you have high blood pressure, be sure to talk with your doctor about taking these steps:
- Eat healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy foods. Get plenty of potassium. Cut your intake of saturated fat and total fat.
- Cut the salt in your diet. Try to keep your salt intake to 1,500 milligrams a day. There's already a lot of salt in many foods. Watch the salt content in processed foods, such as canned soups or frozen dinners.
- Maintain a healthy weight.? If you’re overweight, losing even five pounds can lower your blood pressure.
- Exercise regularly.
- Limit your alcohol. That means one drink a day for women and people older than 65, and two a day for men.
- Don’t smoke.
- Manage stress. Practice healthy coping skills, such as muscle relaxation and deep breathing. Try to get plenty of sleep.
- Monitor your blood pressure at home.
Many people need the help of medicines. Sometimes, lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to control high blood pressure. Your doctor may prescribe medicine, too, to keep it at a safer level.
There are many types of medicines available that work in different ways. Some relax blood vessels to make it easier for the blood to flow through. Some help your body get rid of excess salt and water. This reduces the volume of blood to help lower blood pressure.
Other medicines cause your heart to beat more slowly. Your doctor may prescribe a combination of medicines. Often, two or more together work better than just one.
For more about hypertension, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Breast Cancer Back to top
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is when abnormal cells grow in one or both breasts and develop a mass called a malignant tumor. Those cancer cells can then spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, after skin cancer — one in eight American women will develop breast cancer (12 percent risk rate). Currently, there is no way to prevent breast cancer.
The causes of breast cancer are unknown, but there are some risk factors (such as being overweight and lack of physical activity) that may increase the chances of getting breast cancer. However, these risk factors are not always the best indicator of whether someone will get the disease.
- Change in way the breast feels: The most common symptom is a painless lump or thickening of the breast.
- Change in the way the breast looks: skin change, or a change in size or shape.
- Change in the nipple: It may turn in or the skin around it becomes scaly.
- Fluid comes out of the nipple (other than breast milk).
- You can sometimes detect lumps through breast self-exams
- Your primary care doctor can check for lumps during your physical exams.
- Your doctor can also refer you to get a mammogram — an X-ray of the breast that can find smaller lumps that may be undetectable by touch. If a lump or other change is detected, the doctor will take sample of cells in the breast — this is a biopsy. Results of the biopsy can determine whether cells are cancerous.
Treatment options are based on:
- Type and stage of the cancer
- Chances that type of treatment will cure the cancer or help
- Your age
- Other health problems
- Feelings about side effects for certain treatments
Breast cancer is usually treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or targeted therapy.
Colorectal Cancer Back to top
Get the facts
Colorectal cancer is when abnormal cells grow together in the colon or rectum to form polyps, and those polyps can turn into cancer. It’s called colon or rectal cancer depending on where the polyp is located.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S. — the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among men and the third leading cause for women. It occurs mostly in people older than 50.
An estimated 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented if people were screened routinely.
We don’t know what causes a polyp to become cancerous. Colon polyps are common, but need to be found early to avoid turning into cancer.
Symptoms usually not evident until the cancer starts to spread.
- Blood in stool or very dark stools
- Stools that are narrower than usual
- Change in bowel habits — more frequent or feeling that the bowels are not emptying completely
- Frequent gas pains or cramps
- Diarrhea or constipation
The American Cancer Society recommends regular screenings for everyone age 50 and older. The doctor will do a visual test and/or stool-based test.
- Visual exams include:
- A colonoscopy every 10 years. This screening test involves using a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end to allow the doctor to see the inside of the colon and rectum. A colonoscopy involves removing polyps and taking tissue samples of abnormal polyps.
- A flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years. This test is similar to a colonoscopy, but only covers the lower part of the colon.
- Stool-based tests include:
- A highly sensitive fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year
- A highly sensitive guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) every year
- A multi-targeted stool DNA test (MT-sDNA) every 3 years
When colorectal cancer is caught early, the survival rate is 90 percent. It’s usually treated with surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
Depression and Mental Health Back to top
Learn the signs
Depression is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. It causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, and even physical problems.
Depression in older adults is common, but it is not a normal part of aging. It affects more than 6.5 million people in the U.S. age 65 years and older. It could make it difficult to treat other conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. But, it is treatable and sometimes preventable.
Feeling sad or blue is an occasional part of life, but if these feelings last more than 2 weeks, it may be a sign of depression.
Other signs may include:
- Sadness lasting most of the day or almost every day
- Loss of interest in all or almost all activities
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Sleeping more or less than normal
- Feeling irritable, agitated, restless, or slow
- Feeling guilty or worthless
- Difficulty thinking, focusing, or concentrating
- Repeated thoughts of death or suicide: call your doctor or 911 immediately
Feeling blue is not uncommon, but it’s important to know that you may be at risk of depression if you are:
- Grieving the loss of a loved one
- Losing a sense of independence because you need a caregiver or a health care facility
- Retiring and feeling a loss of purpose or professional identity
- Feeling unwell due to pain, illness, injury, and other conditions
- Under stress mentally, physically, or financially
- Taking certain medications
- Misusing alcohol or prescription drugs
Call your doctor if you feel any of the following for 2 weeks or more:
- Sad, blue, or down
- Tired, slow, or lacking energy
- Loss of interest or pleasure in life
Your doctor may recommend that you:
- Stick to a routine of daily activities. Decreased activity and changes in routines may make depression worse.
- Exercise regularly, do things you enjoy, and limit alcohol. For mild symptoms, this might be all it takes to help you feel better.
- Use relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing. These may help reduce stress levels.
- Seek counseling. A mental health professional can help you identify and address underlying problems.
- Take medication and/or cognitive behavior therapy.
For more about depression, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Diabetes Back to top
Learn the basics
What is diabetes?
- Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects how your body turns food into energy. Most of the food you eat is broken down into sugar (also called glucose) and released into your bloodstream. Your pancreas makes a hormone called insulin, which acts like a key to let the blood sugar into your body’s cells for use as energy.
- If you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin, or can’t use the insulin it makes as well as it should.
- When there isn’t enough insulin, too much blood sugar stays in your bloodstream, which over time can cause serious health problems, such as heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.
- More than 30 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, and one in four of them don’t know they have it.
- More than 84 million U.S. adults — over a third — have prediabetes, and 90% of them don’t know they have it.
- Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States (and may be underreported).
- In the last 20 years, the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than tripled as the American population has aged and become more overweight or obese.
There are three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes (diabetes while pregnant).
Type 1 diabetes
About 5 percent of people with diabetes have type 1. It’s caused by an autoimmune reaction (the body attacks itself by mistake) that stops your body from making insulin. It’s usually diagnosed in children, teens, and young adults. If you have type 1 diabetes, you’ll need to take insulin every day to survive. Currently, no one knows how to prevent type 1 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes
Most people with diabetes — 9 in 10 — have type 2 diabetes. Your body doesn’t use insulin well and is unable to keep blood sugar at normal levels. It develops over many years and is usually diagnosed in adults (though increasingly in children, teens, and young adults).
You may not notice any symptoms, so it’s important to get your blood sugar tested if you’re at risk. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed with healthy lifestyle changes, such as losing weight if you’re overweight, healthy eating, and getting regular physical activity.
Causes of type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes develops when the body becomes resistant to insulin or when the pancreas stops producing enough insulin. Genetics and environmental factors, such as excess weight and inactivity, seem to be contributing factors.
You can get type 2 diabetes if:
- Your body doesn't respond as it should to insulin. This makes it hard for your cells to get sugar from the blood for energy. This is called insulin resistance.
- Your pancreas doesn't make enough insulin.
If you are overweight, get little or no exercise, or have type 2 diabetes in your family, you are more likely to have problems with the way insulin works in your body. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed with a healthy lifestyle, including staying at a healthy weight, making healthy food choices, and getting regular exercise.
The following symptoms of diabetes are typical. However, some people with type 2 diabetes have symptoms so mild that they go unnoticed.
Common symptoms of diabetes include:
- Urinating often
- Feeling very thirsty
- Feeling very hungry — even though you are eating
- Extreme fatigue
- Blurry vision
- Cuts or bruises that are slow to heal
- Weight loss — even though you are eating more (type 1)
- Tingling, pain, or numbness in the hands or feet (type 2)
The American Diabetes Association recommends routine screening for type 2 diabetes beginning at age 45, especially if you're overweight. If the results are normal, repeat the test every 3 years. If the results are borderline, ask your doctor when to come back for another test.
To diagnose type 2 diabetes, you'll be given a Glycated hemoglobin (A1C) test. This blood test indicates your average blood sugar level for the past 2 to 3 months. It measures the percentage of blood sugar attached to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. The higher your blood sugar levels, the more hemoglobin you'll have with sugar attached.
The key to treating type 2 diabetes is to keep blood sugar levels controlled and in your target range.
To lower your blood sugar:
- Make healthy food choices. Try to manage the amount of carbohydrates you eat by spreading them out over the day.
- Lose weight, if you are overweight.
- Get regular exercise.
- Take medicines, if you need them.
It's also important to:
- See your doctor. Regular checkups are important to monitor your health.
- Test your blood sugar levels. You have a better chance of keeping your blood sugar in your target range if you know what your levels are from day to day.
- Keep high blood pressure and high cholesterol under control. This can help you lower your risk of heart and large blood vessel disease.
- Quit smoking. This can help you reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
For more about diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association website.
The Flu Back to top
And how to fight it
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines the flu as a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness and, at times, can lead to death. Getting a yearly flu vaccination is the first and most important step you can take to protect against the flu and its potentially serious complications.
You may have a high risk of complications
- Older adults are more likely to develop complications from the flu.
- As we get older, our immune systems weaken. That’s why vaccination is so important for people 65 and older.
- The flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and prevent flu-related hospitalizations.
The flu shares many of the same symptoms as a cold, but the flu usually starts suddenly. People who have the flu often feel some or all of these signs and symptoms:
- Feeling feverish or having chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (very tired)
Get your flu shot each year. Vaccines are developed each year based on which flu viruses will be most common. Don’t wait until someone close to you gets the flu. Your body takes about 2 weeks after vaccination to develop protective antibodies.
And no, you can’t get the flu from the vaccine! The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated).
- See your doctor as soon as you suspect you have the flu.
- Your doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs that can make your illness milder and shorter. These drugs work best if started within 2 days of getting sick, but starting them later can still be helpful.
- Remember, an antiviral drug can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.
- Stay home: You should stay home for 24 hours after your fever is gone.
- Cover coughs and sneezes: Be sure to use a tissue and throw it in the trash.
- Wash your hands often: Wash with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand rub.
For more facts about the flu, visit the CDC website.
Medication Adherence Back to top
What is Medication Adherence and why it matters to you
Medication adherence means taking your medications as prescribed by your doctor. It sounds easy, but the American Heart Association estimates that three out of four Americans do not take their medication as directed.
- Get your prescriptions filled or refilled in a timely manner?
- Remember to take the correct dosage of your medication?
- Understand and follow any special directions for your medications?
Perhaps you should:
- - Take it at the same time of the day.
- - Take it with or without food if recommended.
With many medications, consistency is key to achieving the best results. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees, saying that poor adherence can interfere with the ability to treat many diseases and manage chronic conditions, which could lead to greater complications and a lower quality of life.
Have you ever skipped a dose? Maybe you:
- Were concerned about side effects?
- Were not certain the medication was working?
- Had trouble paying for your medications?
- Forgot to take your medication?
You are not alone! Many people have experienced one of or a combination of these same challenges.
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about any side effects you’re worried about or are bothering you. You may need to avoid certain foods, or certain medications may interact with one another.
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you think your medication isn’t effective. Perhaps it takes a while before you see the changes you’re looking for.
- Ask your doctor about these potential opportunities to save money on your medications:
- Switching to a lower-cost generic medication
- Changing to an alternative medication on your Cigna-HealthSpring drug list if the medication you are currently taking is not covered or is on a higher cost-sharing tier
- Set daily routines. It can be helpful to connect taking the medication with normal, daily activities such as eating meals or going to bed. Keep backup supplies in your briefcase or purse.
- Keep medications where you’ll see them. If you need to take your medication with food, keep it wherever you eat — maybe on the dinner table or TV tray. If you need to take any medications in the morning, store them next to something that’s part of your normal routine, like your toothbrush or your deodorant.
- Use daily dosage containers. These have compartments labeled with the days of the week and various dosage frequencies. You can find them at most pharmacies.
- Maintain a schedule. Write down or type a schedule that includes the medications you take, how often you take them, and any special directions. The FDA has a handy form to help. Or consider using a device like a medication reminder pager, wristwatch, automatic pill dispenser, or even voice-command medication managers. Your pharmacist can suggest which one may be most helpful.
Preventing Falls Back to top
Help protect yourself
Many of us develop a fear of falling as we get older. Falls can be serious for people aged 65 and older, resulting in injury and even death. Even a minor fall can cause a loss of independence by making it hard to do your everyday activities and take care of yourself.
The fear of falling can have a serious impact on your daily life. You might limit your activities and social engagements to avoid falling. This could lead to depression, isolation, and helplessness.
The good news is there are ways to prevent most falls, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Several factors can increase your chance of a fall. Talk to your doctor to find out if any of these apply to you:
- Changes in eyesight, hearing, or reflexes
- Medical issues that can affect your balance such as diabetes, heart disease, or problems with your thyroid, nerves, feet, or blood vessels
- Medications that make you feel dizzy or sleepy
- Lower body muscle weakness
- Blood pressure that drops too much when you get up from lying down or sitting
- Painful foot problems
Lower your risk lower your risk of falling, follow these tips:
- Stay physically active.
- Have your eyes and hearing tested.
- Learn about any side effects of your medications.
- Get enough sleep.
- Stand up slowly.
- Use an assistive device to help you feel steady.
Be sure to tell your doctor if you have ever fallen, even if your fall did not cause an injury. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that falling once doubles your chances of falling again.
To learn more about falls, visit the NIA website, and download a copy of our checklist to fall-proof your home.
UV Safety Back to top
It’s never too late to protect yourself from the sun
- Did you know that 40 to 50 percent of Americans aged 65 and older will have skin cancer at least once?
- Most skin cancers result from sun damage over time. Since seniors have lived longer, we have had the most exposure to the sun.
Our skin undergoes changes as we age, which weakens our defenses against skin disease. Our thinner skin allows UV light to penetrate more deeply, which can make us more vulnerable to skin damage. Smoking and pollution also harm our body’s ability to protect us from damage from the sun. All of this increases our risk of getting skin cancer.
Skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer.
- Pay attention to the time. The sun’s UV rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Try to schedule your time outside in the early morning or afternoon. If you must be outside during this time, stay in the shade.
- Use the right sunscreen. Choose a sunscreen that is SPF 15 or higher and has “blocks UVA and UVB” or “broad spectrum” on the label.
- And use sunscreen correctly. Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before being in the sun and then reapplied every 2 hours. Be sure to reapply immediately after swimming or heavy sweating.
- Protect yourself even more. Wearing protective clothing like a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and long pants can protect you from the sun’s harmful rays. Also, be sure to remember your UV-filtering sunglasses.