Gauging and anticipating client needs is critical for insurance agents, and never more so than when engaging with seniors during the enrollment period. Older adults are at high risk for developing chronic illnesses and related disabilities and they are looking to you to provide them with the right plan and the right mix of benefits to meet their changing health care needs. For your reference, here are the most common health concerns for seniors that you’ll need to prepare for as you roll out your enrollment period Medicare and Medicare Advantage sales efforts.
“Arthritis is probably the number one condition that people 65 or older contend with,” said geriatrician Marie Bernard, MD, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, MD. It affects about 51 percent of all adults over 65 and can lead to pain and lower quality of life for some seniors. Most people commonly think of arthritis as the condition of having painful, stiff joints. In fact, there are many kinds of arthritis, each with different symptoms and treatments. Most types of arthritis are chronic with symptoms lasting years.
2. Heart Disease
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease remains the leading killer of adults over age 65, accounting for 1,156 deaths per 100,000 people in 2009, the most recent statistics. As a chronic condition, heart disease affects 37 percent of men and 26 percent of women 65 and older. As people age, they’re increasingly living with risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, that increase the chances of having a stroke or developing heart disease.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death among people over age 65, with 982 deaths a year per 100,000 people. According to the CDC, 28 percent of men and 21 percent of women over age 65 are living with cancer. If caught early through screenings such as mammograms, colonoscopies, and skin checks, many types of cancer are treatable.
4. Respiratory Diseases
Chronic lower respiratory diseases, such as COPD, are the third most common cause of death among people 65 and older, annually taking 291 lives per 100,000 people. About 10 percent of men and 13 percent of women are living with asthma, and another 10 percent of men and 11 percent of women are living with chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Although having a chronic respiratory disease increases senior health risks, making them more vulnerable to infections such as pneumonia, getting lung function tests and taking the correct medications or using oxygen as instructed can go a long way toward preserving senior health and quality of life.
5. Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease accounts for about 184 deaths per 100,000 people over age 65 each year. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that as many as 5 million adults over 65 live with Alzheimer’s disease, but because diagnosis is challenging, it’s difficult to know exactly how many people are living with this chronic condition. However, experts acknowledge that cognitive impairment has a significant impact on senior health across the spectrum, from issues of safety and self-care to the cost burden of care in the home or a residential facility.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that 52 million Americans are affected by low bone mass or osteoporosis, putting them at risk for a fracture or break that could lead to poor senior health, decreased mobility and reduced quality of life.
About 24 percent of men and 18 percent of women older than 65 are living with diabetes, a significant senior health risk. According to CDC data, diabetes causes 121 deaths annually among 100,000 adults over age 65. Diabetes can be identified and addressed early with simple blood tests for blood sugar levels.
Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that enables people to get energy from food. T1D usually strikes in childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood, and lasts a lifetime. Just to survive, people with T1D must take multiple injections of insulin daily or continually infuse insulin through a pump.
Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is a metabolic disorder in which a person’s body still produces insulin but is unable to use it effectively. T2D is usually diagnosed in adulthood and does not always require insulin injections. However, increased obesity has led to a recent rise in cases of T2D in children and young adults.
Taking insulin does not cure any type of diabetes, nor does it prevent the possibility of the disease’s devastating effects: kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, heart attack, stroke, and pregnancy complications.
8. Influenza and Pneumonia
Although the flu and pneumonia are not chronic conditions, these infections are among the top seven causes of death in people over age 65, at 104 per 100,000 adults a year. Seniors are more vulnerable to these diseases and less able to fight them off. Senior health care recommendations include getting an annual flu shot and getting the pneumonia vaccine if recommended by your doctor to prevent these infections and their life-threatening complications.
9. Falls and Other Injuries
The number of physical injuries from falls, accidents, and violence is hard to track, but data from the CDC suggest that 29.1 percent of emergency room visits by seniors are related to injury and 13.5 percent are due to unintentional falls. It’s also known that the risk for falls requiring emergency room care increases with age. Most falls occur in the home, where tripping hazards include area rugs and slippery bathroom floors, according to the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Injury and Violence Research.
About 40 percent of adults 65 to 74 years old are obese, although that proportion drops somewhat after age 75, to 27.8 percent. Obesity is an important senior health risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer — chronic conditions that impact quality of life. It can also be a signal that an older adult isn’t as active or mobile as he or she once was.
About 16 percent of women over age 65 and 11 percent of men of that age report symptoms that suggest clinical depression, a threat to senior health. Depression appears to become more common as people age. In addition to treatment with medication and therapy to improve mood, possible solutions to improve senior living might be to increase physical activity — only 11 percent of seniors meet national recommendations for exercise — or to interact more socially — seniors report spending just 8 to 11 percent of their free time with family and friends.
12. Oral Health
Healthy teeth and gums are important not just for a pretty smile and easy eating, but also for overall senior health. According to the CDC, 25 percent of women and 24 percent of men over 65 have no natural teeth. As you age, your mouth tends to become dryer and cavities are more difficult to prevent, so proper oral health care, including regular dental checkups, should be a senior health care priority.
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Everyday Health website: “The 14 Most Common Health Concerns for Seniors,” written by Madeline R Vann, MPH, published, reviewed by Pat F. Bass, III, MD, MPH. Published March 6, 2014.
A Place for Mom website article “Senior Arthritis: Symptoms and Care,” published April 9, 2015.
JDRF website: “General Diabetes Facts”.