When to involve the doctor

When should you worry about an older person's health or safety? Here are 10 conditions that should be checked out by a physician right away. Most of them involve a change from what has been customary for the individual.

1. UNEXPLAINED PERSONALITY CHANGE: The older person begins to act in a way that seems "out of character" for him or her. (For instance, a previously cheerful person becomes grouchy or weepy.)

2. WEIGHT LOSS: The older person is losing weight, but not on purpose. This is of special concern if the weight loss is rapid.

3. SUDDEN SHORTNESS OF BREATH OR DIZZINESS: Serious physical conditions, like heart disease, may show up in unusual ways in the very old.

4. CHANGE IN DAILY ACTIVITIES: The older person doesn't seem to be able to manage tasks like cooking or shopping, which he or she used to do without difficulty.

5. LOSS OF INTEREST: When the older person is no longer interested in former pursuits, it may be a sign of depression. Depression can and should be treated.

6. LOTS OF MEDICINE/MANY PHYSICIANS: When many specialists are prescribing medications, but no one is aware of all the medications the person is taking, the result may be dangerous over-medication or drug interactions.

7. INCREASED SMOKING, DRINKING, OR USE OF SLEEPING PILLS OR TRANQUILIZERS: A sign that the older person may be medicating him or herself to deal with an underlying problem which needs professional attention.

8. INCREASED NUMBERS OF MINOR ACCIDENTS, IN THE KITCHEN, BATHROOM, OR ON THE ROAD: Many conditions can cause a lapse of attention and an inability to concentrate. Some can be treated and some can be assisted with the use of memory aides and adaptive equipment. A pattern of increased accidents should be brought to the physician's attention.

9. CHANGE IN SLEEPING: If an older person begins to sleep far more (or less) than is usual for him or her, it may be a symptom of depression, a signal that blood pressure may be low or that blood pressure medications may need adjustment.

10. SLURRED SPEECH, BLURRED VISION, DIFFICULTY WALKING, HEADACHE, CONFUSION: These symptoms may signal a stroke or "brain attack". Get medical help right away.

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