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What changes are normal as people age?
What are the typical signs of aging, and what's something to worry about?

Date published: 6/28/2009

With some baby boomers now in their 60s, their parents in their 80s or 90s, and people living longer than in the past, there's lots of talk these days about aging.

So what are the typical signs of aging, and what signals that something's wrong?

"A lot of times, people dismiss things, saying 'Oh, it's OK, because she's getting older,'" said Jennifer Reynolds, manager of Senior Care Services at Mary Washington Hospital. "But you shouldn't be losing functionality just because you're older."

According to Mary Beth Reckmeyer, nurse practitioner with Senior Care Services, there's a relatively simple rule of thumb.

"You should be able to do what you've always done, even if you do it more slowly or less frequently," she said. "You can slow down, but you shouldn't lose abilities. If someone has lost any basic skills, there's something that needs to be checked."

For caregivers or friends, anything that catches your attention should be noted. If there's rotting food in the refrigerator, burned pots and pans in the kitchen, or your loved one is suddenly argumentative, don't ignore it.

"There's a reason something catches your attention," Reynolds said. "Don't just let it go."

But it's difficult for caregivers to pressure their older friends or loved ones into seeking assistance.

"It's a delicate balance for caregivers," Reynolds said. "There's a level of respect, particularly if this is parents you're dealing with. But sometimes you have to have that role reversal."

Here are some specifics about what's normal, and what's not, when it comes to getting older.


It's typical, as a person ages, for cognitive abilities and recall to slow, according to Dr. Timothy Salthouse, of the Salthouse Cognitive Aging Lab at the University of Virginia.

"Memory tends to be a little less accurate, particularly in retrieving names for people or objects," Salthouse said. "And people will experience a slowdown in how quickly they're able to do things like arithmetic or searching for something in a display."

There are great extremes in the level of memory problems, Salthouse said.

"If you can't remember where your keys are, don't worry," he said. "If you're holding your keys in your hand, and you don't recognize what they are, that's a problem."

Research has shown there are some "protective factors" that are associated with higher performance and slower declines over time, Salthouse said.

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Senior Care Services. A part of Mary Washington Hospital, its services include a two-hour comprehensive evaluation of a senior. Staff also works with primary care physicians and other doctors to improve seniors' and caregivers' quality of life. medicorp.org/senior.mgi or 540/741-3560.

Rappahannock Area Agency on Aging. This non-profit agency serves people 60 and older in the Fredericksburg region, answering questions, explaining programs and making referrals to other agencies when needed. raaa16.org or 540/371-3375.


Number of people 85 and older in Virginia in the 2000 Census


The projected number of Virginia residents ages 85 and older by 2030

Behavior changes can stem from many different issues, said Mary Beth Reckmeyer, nurse practicioner with Senior Care Services at Mary Washington Hospital.

"When someone who always went to church and won't go anymore, is it because they can't walk well?" Reckmeyer asked. "Because they can't hear the sermon? Because they can't remember people's names and that's embarrassing?"

That's why a complete assessment is a good idea. A physician or geriatric specialist can look at cognitive, physical and social issues that could be causing behavior changes, and make recommendations.

Once an assessment is done, there's a baseline report that gives doctors or other specialists a comparison if problems creep up later.

Aging-related problems can be scary, and no one likes to think that the years they are living may be their last. But many aging-related problems can be improved or at least stalled by medications, physical therapy, exercise and more.

So, it's important to see a doctor and find out what's wrong, rather than to simply chalk up problems to the aging process.

"There is power in knowledge," said Jennifer Reynolds, Senior Care Services manager.

"For me, it's all about the quality of whatever time you have left," Reckmeyer said. "If you're not experiencing joy in the last years of your life, there's something wrong."