Listening to Our Bodies: The Art of Paying Attention As We Age

We live in the information age where countless voices are vying for our attention. From social media to emails, ads, and news stories, the world is getting louder. In fact, the extent of the information revolution and digital age has been calculated by Dr Martin Hilbert and his team at the University of Southern California. Using the analogy of an 85 page newspaper, they found that in 1986 we received around 40 newspapers full of information every day but this had rocketed to 174 in 2007. If anything, these numbers should remind us that our power lies in our attention and what we choose to listen to every day.

As human beings our lives are made up of a complex web of needs and desires. Our health is an important piece of our overall well-being and quality of life. When we think of tools for staying healthy we tend to focus on the latest health craze, medications, juicers, or gym memberships; however it is our attention that is our most powerful tool in protecting our bodies and minds. As we age, it is crucial that we learn to pay attention and listen to our bodies and adapt to their needs as they change over time.

Changes in the body often happen gradually and so they can be easy to miss. It often takes our doctor asking us specific questions to get us to reflect on our bodies and patterns that are developing. To track subtle changes, it can be helpful to keep a calendar or a health journal to see small shifts over time. Maybe you notice a little soreness or weakness in a particular area that comes and goes. Perhaps you are developing a food allergy, but can’t quite see a pattern. Recording your observations and activities can be a valuable tool to help you listen to your body and it is an incredible asset to your doctor in the process of diagnosis and treatment. As adult children of an aging parent, your observational skills can be crucial to getting appropriate help and care in a timely manner. A spouse or other family member is usually the first to notice and talk about changes in health or behavior as we age.

Our bodies are amazing at signaling to us when there is a problem. Whether we are caring for ourselves as we age, our families, or looking after an aging loved one, we need to know the languages the body uses to get our attention and learn how to listen to what it is saying. According to the Mayo Clinic there are 7 symptoms that we should never ignore in our bodies:

No. 1 :: Unexplained weight loss

Losing weight without trying might sound like a dream come true, but in reality it can signal a health problem. If you've lost up to 10 percent of your weight during the past six months — for instance, 15 pounds (7 kilograms) if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms) — consult your doctor. An unexplained drop in weight could be caused by various conditions — including overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), diabetes, depression, liver disease, cancer or disorders that interfere with how your body absorbs nutrients (malabsorption disorders).

No. 2 :: Persistent or high fever
A fever isn't necessarily a cause for alarm. Fever seems to play a key role in fighting infection. If you've had a fever for more than three days, however, get checked by your doctor. Persistent fever can signal a hidden infection, which could be anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis. In some cases, cancerous (malignant) conditions — such as lymphomas — cause prolonged or persistent fevers, as can some medications. If you have a high fever — 103 F (39.4 C) or higher — consult your doctor as soon as possible.

No. 3 :: Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath that feels more severe than what's caused by a stuffy nose or vigorous physical activity could signal an underlying health problem. If you're unable to get your breath, or you're gasping for air or wheezing, seek emergency medical care. Feeling breathless when lying down also is a symptom that needs to be evaluated promptly.

Causes for breathlessness may include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism), as well as other heart and lung problems. Difficulty breathing can also occur with panic attacks — episodes of intense anxiety that can cause rapid heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath and other physical symptoms.

No. 4 :: Unexplained changes in bowel habits.
What's considered normal for bowel movements varies widely. Consult your doctor if you notice unusual or unexplained changes in what's normal for you, such as:

  • Bloody, black or tarry-colored stools
  • Persistent diarrhea or constipation
  • Unexplained urges to have a bowel movement

Changes in bowel habits could signal a bacterial infection — such as campylobacter or salmonella — or a viral or parasitic infection. Other possible causes include irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer.

No. 5 :: Confusion or personality changes 
Seek medical attention if you have:

  • Sudden confused thinking
  • Confusion about time or place (disorientation)
  • Sudden problems with concentration or memory
  • Sudden personality or behavior changes, such as becoming aggressive

Changes in behavior or thinking could be caused by many problems, including infection, anemia, low blood sugar, dehydration or mental health conditions. Sometimes medications contribute to confusion or personality changes. 

No. 6 :: Feeling full after eating very little. 
If you consistently feel full sooner than normal or after eating less than usual, get checked by your doctor. This feeling, known as early satiety, also may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, bloating, fever, and weight loss or gain. If so, be sure to tell your doctor about these signs and symptoms as well. Possible causes of early satiety include gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD, and irritable bowel syndrome. In some cases, a more serious problem — such as pancreatic cancer — could be a factor.

No. 7 :: Flashes of light 
Bright spots or flashes of light and other visual disturbances sometimes indicate a migraine. In other cases, sudden flashing lights could signal retinal detachment. Immediate medical care can help prevent permanent vision loss.

 

Published on February 5, 2014.