Senior citizens often end up in the emergency room (ER) for serious health issues — heart attacks or strokes, for example – but many are also rushed to the ER because of injuries and accidents. Find out the main reasons for ER visits among seniors, and then see the simple precautions you or a senior you care for can take to avoid accidents and injuries.
(The descriptions below are for informational purposes only, and should never be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. If you suspect you have any of the symptoms or health conditions described below, you should always consult with your medical provider regarding diagnosis of or treatment for a health condition, and also prior to undertaking any specific exercise or dietary routine.)
Injuries and accidents*
Car accidents, falls (resulting in fractures), injuries, and heat-induced exhaustion are common problems for seniors and may result in ER visits. Fortunately, you can make these calamities less likely by taking some fairly easy precautions:
- Have your hearing and vision tested regularly if you drive. Don’t drive if your doctor advises against it.
- Check your home inside and out for loose carpets and slippery rugs, dimly lit stairs, loose handrails (or no handrail where one is needed), adequate lighting, and other “disasters waiting to happen,” and fix them. Many towns and churches have volunteer programs that can send someone to make these minor repairs for you.
- Talk to your doctor and have him or her recommend an exercise program that’s right for you to maintain the strength of your bones and muscles.
- Wear comfortable shoes with rubber soles that support your feet, and tie your shoes. Flip-flops and bedroom slippers can be especially unstable.
- Stand up slowly upon waking up or after a meal to avoid dizziness and potential falls.
- Drink plenty of water and remain indoors (in an air-conditioned environment) on extremely hot days. Staying hydrated can help you avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke, while also offering some protection against urinary tract infections (UTIs), a fairly common condition that causes seniors to seek care in an emergency room.
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Chest pains and shortness of breath can be associated with heart disease, which is still the leading cause of death for both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Again, Medicare Part B covers cardiovascular disease screening tests, so it’s a good idea for you to get these tests regularly to help detect conditions that may lead to heart disease, like elevated cholesterol levels.
One of the more serious conditions that sends senior to emergency care is stroke. You can reduce your chances of a stroke by adopting healthy living habits, including healthy eating, regular exercise, maintaining an appropriate weight, giving up smoking, and reducing your alcohol intake.
Also, be aware of stroke symptoms. Strokes generally don’t cause pain, but they can cause confusion, and paralysis on one side of the body. If you have trouble moving one arm or one leg, or if you can’t speak coherently, you could be having a stroke; you should call 911.
Seniors frequently land in the ER due to chest pains, which may or may not be caused by heart disease. Other causes for chest pains include respiratory infections and gastrointestinal problems. As part of your “Welcome to Medicare” health visit when you first enroll in Medicare, your doctor can order an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check your heart. Medicare Part B covers this test if your doctor feels it’s needed and orders it for you.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Shortness of breath, emphysema, and bronchitis are often symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is another leading reason for ER visits among seniors. Smoking is the main cause of COPD, and stopping smoking can go a long way in preventing this disease. Medicare Part B covers up to eight face-to-face counseling sessions per year for people who want to stop smoking.
Medicare Part B covers a pneumococcal shot to prevent respiratory infections like pneumonia. The shot generally doesn’t cover every possible strain of this virus — just the most common ones — so even if you get your pneumonia shot, you should still avoid coming into contact with people who are sick.
Osteoporosis (loss of bone density) can lead to bone fractures, another potential hazard for seniors. It can be a good idea to ask your doctor about maintaining bone strength by getting plenty of calcium through your diet or supplements and doing weight-bearing exercises (if appropriate for your physical condition). You can also get regular bone mass measurement tests, which are covered under Medicare Part B if your doctor orders them. Osteoporosis is sometimes also associated with gastrointestinal issues.
Spinal disorders, including back and neck pain, as well as arthritis, are another leading reason for emergency care among seniors. One way to reduce the likelihood of spinal disorders is to ask your doctor to recommend an exercise program that’s appropriate for your particular ailment.
Abdominal pain is often the result of digestive problems, a virus or infection, or food poisoning. Kidney stones are another cause of abdominal pain, and they can sometimes be prevented by simple dietary changes, like drinking plenty of water and reducing sodium and animal protein. If you think you may be at risk for kidney stones, talk to your doctor about dietary changes and other ways to prevent them.
Adverse drug reactions
Bad reactions to drugs sometimes send seniors to the emergency room. To prevent this problem, be sure to carefully follow your doctor’s instructions when taking medications, avoid self-medication, and be sure to refill your prescriptions before you run out of medicine. Ask your pharmacist about drug interactions: Do any of your medications cause problems if you take them along with different medications? Also, be sure to report any drug-related side effects to your doctor immediately.
Urinary tract infection
Dehydration is one of the main reasons for urinary tract infections (UTIs) among seniors, and you can help avoid UTIs by drinking plenty of water. If you have any symptoms, they might include pain on urination, confusion, agitation, or nausea, to name a few examples.
For more tips
* The following articles can give you more ideas for ways to maintain your health and reduce the chances you’ll need emergency assistance:
- “Cardiovascular Disease Screening,” Medicare.gov, www.medicare.gov/coverage/cardiovascular-disease-screenings.html
- “Heart Disease Facts,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
- “Preventive Stroke: Healthy Living,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC.gov, April 2015, www.cdc.gov/stroke/healthy_living.htm
- “Smoking and Tobacco Use Cessation,” Medicare.gov, www.medicare.gov/coverage/smoking-and-tobacco-use-cessation.html
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