How to Tell the Difference Between Normal Aging and a Potential Health Problem

Aging isn’t always fun, but always remember it beats the alternative of not aging! While everyone’s bodies change, different people will experience changes at different times, largely dependent upon some combination of genetics and lifestyle factors. You’ll likely find yourself wondering, “is this normal or something I should be worried about?” at some point. This article outlines some of the major body changes associated with healthy aging versus those which might necessitate a call or trip to the doctor. (Of course, always dial 911 immediately if you think you or a loved one might need urgent attention.)


Normal Aging:

  • Slower processing & reflexes
  • Occasional memory loss


  • Sudden behavior changes
  • Memory loss that impacts daily life
  • Difficulty performing everyday tasks
  • Depression

Brain changes are perhaps the most misunderstood of the changes people experience as they age. We used to simply accept that all old people develop some degree of senility. However, the truth is that while some reduced brain capacity in older age is normal, dementia is a distinct symptom associated with diseases. It is normal to sometimes forget names and occasionally have trouble finding the right word. Most healthy people will eventually recall the lost name or word. It is not normal, on the other hand, to regularly be unable to use words that were once familiar or to experience memory loss that impacts one’s ability to function.

Normal brain changes also lead to slower reflexes, which is one reason older people tend to fall more than others. However, an unsteady gait or loss of balance may be a sign of something abnormal happening in the brain and should be discussed with a physician.

In general, normal changes tend to occur gradually over longer periods of time, while symptoms that appear suddenly are more likely cause for concern.

Bones & Muscles


  • Gradual weakening of muscles
  • Reduced bone density
  • Stiff joints


  • Sudden or extreme weakness
  • Unsteady gait
  • Painful, swollen joints

While regular exercise and healthy eating habits can stave off some unpleasant changes, everyone will experience normal musculoskeletal changes at some point. Gradual weakening of muscles and reduced bone density are normal. However, any sudden or extreme weakness or trouble walking could indicate a serious medical condition and should be promptly evaluated by a doctor. While joints will naturally become stiff as the cartilage that pads them wears out, pain and swelling of joints might be arthritis or another treatable condition.

Digestion & Metabolism


  • Lighter appetite with reduced activity
  • Lost teeth & use of dentures
  • Slower digestion
  • Less frequent bowel movements


  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Chronic or recurring constipation or diarrhea

As people get older, normal changes may impact their eating and toileting habits. The use of dentures sometimes limits older folks’ ability to chew certain foods, which can make eating unpleasant or even create a choking hazard. Qualified healthcare providers can advise seniors on diet modifications to overcome these challenges.

Also normal is reduced physical activity leading to a reduced appetite, but a significant loss of appetite or lack of interest in eating should be monitored. A 5% or 10% increase or decrease in body weight within one year is generally not concerning, but fluctuations greater than 10% could indicate a medical disorder.

Persistent difficulty swallowing, known as dysphagia, is not normal and should be evaluated by a physician. This hazard can be difficult to detect in those with cognitive limitations, but some clues are pocketing food in the cheeks, drooling and gagging or coughing while swallowing. Speech therapists and special diets are often prescribed for people with dysphagia, so it’s important to seek help.

Once chewed and swallowed, food moves through older adults’ digestive systems more slowly, and weakened intestinal muscles often make bowel movements more difficult and infrequent. These changes in bowel habits are normal and may be improved by incorporating more fiber into the diet, drinking plenty of fluids and incorporating a fiber supplement if needed. Chronic constipation and diarrhea are not normal and might indicate an underlying medical problem.

Urinary System


  • Reduced bladder size & strength
  • Occasional accidents & leaks


  • Sudden urge to urinate more frequently
  • Pain or burning during urination
  • Bloody or cloudy urine
  • Full urinary incontinence

Like other body parts, the muscles that control bladder function also lose strength over time. These weaker muscles will gradually cause the need to urinate more frequently, but a doctor should be consulted promptly if trips to the bathroom increase suddenly. Older adults are more prone to urinary tract infections, which can cause severe complications and need to be treated with medicine. Some seniors make the mistake of drinking less water to avoid the nuisance of frequent urination, but fluid intake and hydration are very important to overall health.

Some reduced control of urination is normal, and many older adults wear some type of protection against leaks. However, full incontinence of the bladder or bowels is usually related to a chronic medical condition.



  • Gradual development of hearing & vision limitations
  • Reduced sense of taste & smell


  • Sudden loss of hearing or vision
  • Difficulty with balance

Everyone knows that older people often struggle with hearing loss and reduced vision; these changes are perfectly normal when they develop gradually and can be overcome with hearing aids and glasses. As with any abrupt changes, however, a sudden loss of hearing or sight would necessitate a trip to the doctor.

Our senses of taste and smell also decline as part of the normal aging process. This can trigger people to either lose interest in eating or to start consuming more salt, sugar and fat in search of flavor, which can lead to health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. Instead, try introducing citrus, fresh herbs and other new ingredients to enhance flavor and ensure meals are visually appealing. Click here for tips on adding flavor without more salt.



  • Frequently feeling cold
  • Dryness & occasional itching


  • Skin tears or pressure sores
  • Excessive bruising
  • Persistent rashes

Skin, the body’s largest organ, is another area that naturally changes over time. Older adults’ skin becomes thinner, making it less effective at regulating body temperature, which is why seniors are often bundled up. Skin also loses moisture and elasticity with age, making it more prone to dryness and tearing. Skin conditions like pressure sores, rashes, excessive bruising and signs of inflammation – swelling, redness and warmth to the touch – are not a normal part of aging and should be evaluated by a physician. An annual trip to the dermatologist is always a good idea to monitor moles and any other potential problem areas.

This article provides a summary of publicly available information and does not seek to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Always direct questions and concerns about your health to your doctor.