40 Signs of Poor Health No One Over 40 Should Ignore
The best way to stay healthy is to know what to look for.
You already know what you need to do to stay healthy: eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and visit your doctor on a regular basis. But in many cases, staying on top of your health is easier said than done. And when you're over 40, feeling your best is about way more than simply getting your share of vegetables and hitting the gym a few times a week.
To help you know what to look for now that you're in your fifth decade, we've rounded up the signs of poor health that people over 40 should never ignore.
Though heartburn is pretty common—especially in people over 40—it could also be a sign of something else, like coronary artery disease, says Rand McClain, MD. "While heartburn—the feeling that can be associated with acid reflux or a peptic ulcer—is ubiquitous in Western culture, the same feeling can also signal coronary artery disease," he explains.
"Coronary artery disease is the build-up of plaque in coronary arteries that can lead to angina (chest pain) that can be mistaken for heartburn and interpreted as acid reflux or peptic ulcer." If that plaque build-up is extensive enough, it can block the flow of blood to the heart and result in a heart attack. And now that you're over 40, that's definitely not something you want to mess with.
Unusual Joint Pain
"Everyone's body goes through wear and tear from daily living, and after reaching 40 years of age, you may start to notice a greater number of achy painful areas," says Thanu Jey, MD, clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic.
But in addition to everyday wear, these symptoms could also signal arthritis. "Typically the knees and low back may begin to ache with the start of early arthritis setting in. It's important to get these aches assessed as arthritis can progress faster with poor management."
Sudden Weight Gain
Your weight may fluctuate by a pound or two each day—that's totally normal. But sudden weight gain for no reason can be a sign of fluid retention, says Toni Brayer, MD, an internal medicine physician at the Sutter Institute for Health and Healing in San Francisco. Additionally, this symptom could be a sign of a kidney or thyroid disorder, as well as polycystic ovary syndrome.
Pain Between Your Shoulder Blades
If you experience pain between your shoulder blades and there is no other logical explanation—like overdoing it at the gym—it may be gallstones, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. These tend to be most painful at night, especially if you've eaten a fatty meal.
"Gallstones are the product of cholesterol and bile, and this may result in infection, irritation, and inflammation," says Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica. "Gallbladder removal is one of the most common surgeries in the U.S. and is the main treatment for removing gallstones."
Blood in Urine
According to urologist Herbert Ruckle, MD, from the Loma Linda University urology department, you should never ignore blood in your urine—even if there is no pain or it only happens once. It might mean bladder or kidney cancer, kidney stones, or infection. Bring this symptom up to your doctor, stat.
Headaches are tricky, because they're very common, but may be indicative of something else, like a brain tumor. Pay attention to changes in the frequency, type, and intensity of a headache, and if you notice anything out of the ordinary, you should seek prompt neurological evaluation, says Santosh Kesari, MD, neuro-oncologist and neuroscientist at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica.
"Larger tumors and faster-growing tumors cause increased pressure in the brain resulting in activation of pain receptors on the coverings of the brain (meninges) resulting in headache," he explains. "The brain itself has no pain receptors. A small fast growing tumor can cause as severe a headache as a large but slow-growing tumor."
Dizziness can happen if you stand up too quickly, or after a few too many glasses of wine, but if you notice that it's happening on a regular basis, you may want to talk to your doctor about it. According to Kesari, it could indicate a tumor at the base of the brain. There are also plenty of other causes of dizziness, according to the Mayo Clinic, including vertigo, anxiety, dehydration, poor circulation, and migraines.
New Problems With Sexual Function
If a man over 40 experiences problems in the bedroom that they never dealt with before, it may mean that an existing heart or blood vessel disease is reaching a critical point, Ruckle says. Ignoring this sign could result in a heart attack.
Shortness of Breath
This is always a sign of poor health, deconditioning, and the need to get in shape and better overall health, Brayer says. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, it could also be a sign of something else, like asthma, pulmonary embolism, or cardiovascular problems.
A cough that persists after the flu or bronchitis is normal. But a cough that doesn't go away can indicate asthma, lung disease, or even cancer, says Brayer.///
A healthy body is not always tired. If you're constantly exhausted, tell your doctor as soon as possible. From depression to Lyme disease, there are many causes of extreme fatigue that your doctor can treat, says Brayer. And for some clues about what could be amiss, check out the 23 Reasons You're Tired All the Time.
Like constant fatigue, chronic anxiety is no way to go through life. Anxiety is debilitating and interferes with good health and happiness, Brayer explains. It is also one of the most common reasons people become addicted to alcohol, sex, drugs, shopping, and over-eating, she says. Your best bet is to talk to a professional before your anxiety becomes worse and affects your health even more than it already does.
Slower Urine Stream
For men, a slowed urine stream can indicate a large prostate, says Thomas L. Horowitz, MD, family medicine specialist at CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles. Though this can be benign, it may also be a sign of cancer and should be checked as soon as possible.
Or More Frequent Urination
Anyone who finds themselves urinating at an increased frequency should see a doctor, as this symptom is sometimes a sign of diabetes, says Horowitz. According to the Mayo Clinic, there may be a problem if frequent urination is impacting different aspects of your life, like your sleep or work. Tell your doctor about any changes to your routine as soon as you notice something is off.
Unintended Weight Loss
While losing weight may be a move in the right direction for some people, if the pounds just start falling off on their own, it could be a sign something is wrong. Specifically, Horowitz says it could indicate diabetes, thyroid disease, or some cancers.
Burning the inside of your mouth on food or coffee hurts a lot, but sometimes you can experience a chronic or recurring burning or tingling feeling without having scarfed down something scalding. This symptom is occasionally accompanied by a metallic taste or dry mouth sensation.
All told, it may be burning mouth syndrome, a condition that's typically caused by nerve damage, but it could also be a symptom of other conditions like diabetes, anemia, or dry mouth, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Oral Diseases. If this is something you're dealing with on a regular basis, it's time to talk to your doctor.
Though snoring may seem harmless (or simply annoying), the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) says it could be a sign of something more serious. According to the AASM, heavy snoring may be associated with obstructive sleep apnea—a severe sleep disorder—and a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and many other health problems that become even more prevalent after your 40th birthday.
Sleep apnea involves the repeated collapse of the upper airway during sleep. It puts an enormous strain on the heart by repeatedly causing oxygen levels to drop and blood pressure to surge as one sleeps.
Frequent Cold Sores
Cold sores are caused by the Herpes virus, Brayer explains. The majority of people have been exposed to the Herpes virus, and many do not get outbreaks. But under times of stress, illness, sun exposure, and having a compromised immune system, the virus can emerge. Frequent outbreaks may mean your immune system is working overtime, she says. This should be a signal to take a good look at your lifestyle and stress levels.
Everyone has occasional itchiness. But all-over pruritus (the medical name for itchy skin) that is unexplained could be from something as simple as using a new laundry detergent or something as serious as liver disease, Brayer explains. Eliminate any potentially irritating products and if the itchiness is still there, see your physician.
Menopausal women know that night sweats are a normal result of fluctuating and declining hormones, Brayer notes. But if you're not yet experiencing menopause, night sweats are not normal. In those cases, they can actually be early warning signs of lymphoma or infection, so get them checked out if you're experiencing them in your 40s.
Horizontal Ridges on Nails
Vertical ridges on your fingernails are totally normal and no cause for concern, but horizontal ridges—especially if they're deep—could be a sign of something else. According to the Mayo Clinic, conditions associated with these ridges (also called Beau's lines) include uncontrolled diabetes and peripheral vascular disease, as well as illnesses associated with a high fever, such as scarlet fever, measles, mumps, and pneumonia. Beau's lines can also be a sign of zinc deficiency.
Mouth breathing—either during the day or at night—can indicate poor tongue posture and function, and can be predictive of future sleep apnea, says Sharona Dayan, MD, a board-certified periodontist and founder of Aurora Periodontal Care in Beverly Hills. Estrogen helps to keep resiliency of the tongue and throat, and as those levels drop off, the muscles become looser and are more likely to collapse during sleep as gravity pulls the tongue back into the throat, she explains.
This can result in short periods of time when the airway becomes blocked. In addition, mouth breathing, which Dayan says causes us to lose up to 60 percent of the moisture in our mouths, can also lead to periodontal disease due to the reduction of protective salivary immunoglobulins.
Most people start forgetting things as they age—that's totally normal and usually not cause for concern. The main difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that in normal aging, the forgetfulness does not interfere with your ability to carry on with normal daily activities, says Verna R. Porter, MD, neurologist and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Program at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
"In other words, the memory lapses have little impact on your daily life or your ability to carry on the usual chores, tasks, and routines that comprise our daily lives," she explains. "In contrast, dementia is characterized by a marked, persistent, and disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgment or abstract reasoning, that significantly interfere with and disrupt your normal daily activities."
New or Changing Moles
If you have any moles on your body that change shape or color or look suspicious, it's a good idea to see a doctor as it may be a sign of skin cancer. Excessive sun exposure and/or sunburns as a child or young adult increases your risk for skin cancer later on, says Kristine Arthur, MD, internist at Memorial Care Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Using sunblock daily can dramatically reduce the amount of skin damage and risk of skin cancer later on, she adds.
A Lump on Your Breast
If you find a lump on your breast during your monthly self-exam—or anything else that feels out of place—it's a good idea to talk to your doctor. In addition, you should start getting regular mammograms at the age of 40, Arthur says, unless you have a family history of breast cancer or a genetic condition that puts you at risk for breast cancer. In that case, you should have a discussion with your doctor about when to start mammograms and any other screening that's needed.
Changes to the Nipple
If you notice that your nipple, areola, or surrounding skin changes color or texture, it may be a sign of breast cancer, says Richard Reitherman, MD, medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
These changes may be noticeable only in certain positions, so it is important to check for these changes when you are lying down on your back and rolling side to side, bending over, or standing upright facing a mirror while positioning your hands behind your neck, he explains.
Pain or Tenderness in the Breasts
According to Reitherman, pain or tenderness is difficult to assess. Most commonly, pain in that area is related to your menstrual cycle and may vary from month to month. Post-menopausal women may also experience intermittent pain. But if your pain is also associated with an actual hard lump or skin thickening, you should see a doctor right away, he says. Usually, this is a cyst or other non-malignant issue—but it's always better to be safe than sorry.
Lumps in Your Armpit Area
If you notice a lump in or around your armpit, it may be something to bring up with your doctor, as it could be a sign of breast cancer, says Janie Grumley, MD, breast surgical oncologist and director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John's Center. These are often painless and only located on one side of your body. Most breast symptoms are not breast cancer, but it's important to confirm this with a clinical exam by a specialist.
Most people get diarrhea from time to time, but if you find yourself getting it more frequently, it could be the sign of a gastrointestinal infection, says Bedford. "Gastrointestinal infections are either viral, bacterial or happen because of a parasite," he explains. "Inflammation occurs in the stomach and intestines and can lead to symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Staying hydrated is the optimal treatment for gastrointestinal infections because you may lose a lot of fluid."
Shooting Pain in Your Arms or Legs
Having shooting pains in your arms or legs may be a result of a pinched nerve, says Allen Conrad, MD, chiropractor and owner of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center. Other symptoms include numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm or leg. Early detection can help prevent permanent problems, he says. Sharp, shooting pains in your limbs could also be a sign of multiple sclerosis, according to the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation.
Blood in Stool
Finding blood in your stool could be a sign of underlying colon issues, says Monique Dieuvil, MD, family medicine specialist at Orlando Health Physician Associates. Sometimes this symptom can be caused by something benign—such as hemorrhoids—but other times it can be a symptom of colon cancer. It's important to have a regular colonoscopy every 10 years, or more frequently if the doctors find polyps, she says.
Constant rashes are definitely annoying, but they could also be a sign of something more significant. Many people don't realize that beyond the age of 40, their digestive system is not absorbing enough micronutrients, which can result in low levels of iron, magnesium, and B vitamins, says Dean C. Mitchell, MD, clinical assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. Those deficiencies could lead to a chronic rash.
When it comes to bowel movements, we're all on different schedules. But if you notice you're going several days without a normal bowel movement, you may be dealing with chronic constipation, Bedford explains. In addition, you may find that your bowels are harder than usual or that you are sitting there pushing. Chronic constipation can happen when taking certain medications—including opioids—and as a symptom of conditions like diabetes, thyroid disorder, or Parkinson's disease, according to the UCLA Center for Neurobiology and Stress and Resilience.
Occasional bad breath happens to the best of us, but if the odors coming from your mouth are strong and persistent, it could be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease—also referred to as GERD, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. This common digestive disorder occurs when acid from the stomach enters the esophagus because the lower part of it—the esophagus sphincter—relaxes at the wrong time, Bedford explains.
Because it's often extremely painful and disruptive, abdominal pain is not something you can typically ignore. Sometimes, it's simply gas (and yes, gas bloating can be very painful). But it can also be a sign of pancreatitis, Bedford explains. If that's the case, the pain may travel to your back and get worse after eating a meal.
Back pain is, unfortunately, something else that's very common—especially for women, says Neel Anand, MD, director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. "The majority of female patients who come to me for treatment of their spinal conditions often don't believe me when I tell them that sometimes, the stress in their everyday lives contributes to their chronic back pain," he says. "And if it doesn't contribute to the spinal condition itself, stress can certainly contribute to its severity."
Pain concentrated in the lower back could also be a sign of other conditions like sciatica, herniated or ruptured discs, or spinal stenosis, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Like abdominal pain associated with gas, bloating can happen after a heavy meal, or after one featuring certain foods. "Dietary rituals including many 'B' and 'C' vegetables are classic causes of gas and bloating and include beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower," says Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica.
"Other dietary culprits include rich and fatty foods, whole grains, apples, peaches, pears, lettuce, onions, sugar-free foods containing sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol are directly associated with this frustrating symptom." In addition to vegetables, bloating is a common symptom of lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome, she adds. In rare cases, it could be a sign of ovarian cancer, says Steve Vasilev, MD, gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica.
Burning With Urination
If you feel a burning sensation when you urinate, it's probably time to talk to a doctor. Burning with urination may be a sign of conditions including urinary tract infections, pelvic prolapse, urinary stones, or bladder cancer, says S. Adam Ramin, MD, urologic surgeon and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles.
Bladder cancer is more likely to affect men than women. Because of this, it is sometimes overlooked in female examinations and many female bladder cancer patients have reported being diagnosed with the disease while being evaluated for something else entirely, Ramin says.
Our necks take a beating all day, every day, thanks to our constant reliance on devices like our phones. Because we're always looking down, we could develop "text neck," Anand explains. Neck pain could also be a sign of something more serious like degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, he adds.
"This disease can occur over time when the early wear and tear described above continues and causes more significant and sometimes permanent damage," he says. "In addition to pain and stiffness in the neck, this condition can also cause tingling, numbness, or general weakness in the shoulders and arms which can sometimes radiate all the way down to the fingers."
Feeling Full Quickly
If you normally have a healthy appetite, but suddenly start feeling very full, very quickly while you're eating, it could be a sign of ovarian cancer, says Vasilev. This is related to either accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, which is called ascites, or due to pressure from an ovarian mass or peritoneal irritation from cancerous implants throughout the abdomen or pelvis, he explains. And for how to avoid cancer of all types, check out the 27 Cancer Prevention Tips Doctors Want You to Hear.
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