21 Ways Your Body is a Ticking Time Bomb
OK, sure, the title of this piece is a little dramatic. But the most important fact about serious illness is this: Most of the difficult and life-threatening health conditions that crop up after age 40 don’t happen overnight—they develop slowly, as the result of lifestyle choices, and can be prevented or reversed if you know what to look for, what lifestyle changes to make, and what tests to request at the doctor’s office. So read this list, but don’t run for cover: Talk to your doctor about your concerns and risk factors, early and often.
Your brain is slowing
It may be the ultimate “win some, lose some:” Just after your brain reaches maturity in your late 20s, its performance starts to decline. By your mid-40s, you might not feel as sharp as you once were; that’s when reasoning skills begin to slow. According to data published in the British Medical Journal, reasoning skills drop 3.6 percent from your mid-40s to your 50s.
Recommendation: Harvard Medical School says there are some easy ways you can keep your brain young: Get mental stimulation, do regular exercise and keep your cholesterol and blood pressure under control. Other factors that have been shown to decrease the risk of dementia: Eat a Mediterranean diet (heavy in fruits, vegetables, plant proteins and good fats like olive oil) and limit your alcohol intake to two drinks per day. And get seven to nine hours of sleep nightly—no less, no more.
You could develop shingles
Shingles may be the ultimate ticking time bomb that comes with age. Most of us had chicken pox as children; the spots fade, but the virus stays dormant in our bodies, occasionally resurfacing as shingles—a painful blistered rash on the sides of the torso or face—later on in life. According to the National Institute of Health magazine, almost a quarter of adults will get shingles during their lifetime, usually after age 40. The Mayo Clinic says that fully half of people over age 80 will develop it.
Recommendation: Vaccines can reduce your risk. Talk to your doctor.
You have high blood pressure but don’t know it
When’s the last time you had your blood pressure checked? It might be higher than you think. In 2018, the American Heart Association lowered the guidelines for healthy blood pressure from 140/90 (and 150/80 for those older than 65) to 130/80 for all adults. According to Harvard Medical School, that means 70 to 79 percent of men over 55 technically have hypertension. Over time, that can weaken the walls of blood vessels, increasing your risk of stroke, heart attack and dementia.
Recommendation: To lower your risk, get your blood pressure checked soon—and regularly. Follow a heart-healthy diet (including these foods), lose weight and stay active.
You have high cholesterol but don’t know it
As we age, the body produces more cholesterol, which can build up in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. In women, menopause causes LDL (“bad”) cholesterol to rise and HDL (“good”) to drop. Experts advise getting your cholesterol checked every five years, but older adults may need it done more frequently. Your total cholesterol level should be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), with an LDL level of less than 100 mg/dL and an HDL level of 60 mg/dL or higher.
Recommendation: To keep your levels in a healthy range, eat a diet low in saturated fat and trans fats, get regular exercise and maintain an ideal weight.
Your snoring is actually sleep apnea
Do you snore? It might be more than a nuisance for those within earshot. Snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). During OSA, breathing can stop for as long a minute, before your brain wakes you up to resume breathing; the pauses can happen many times a night. Sound scary? It is. OSA has been associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. It’s also interrupting your sleep, and poor sleep quality has been associated with a shortened lifespan.
Recommendation: If your partner has told you that you snore, talk to your doctor about it.
You haven’t been tested for chronic kidney disease
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once you hit 40, kidney filtration begins to decrease by one percent every year. But sometimes that process can accelerate without noticeable signs. Chronic kidney disease (CKD)—in which the kidneys filter fewer wastes from the blood, causing them to build up in the body—can develop and proceed relatively symptom-free until your kidneys are badly damaged.
Recommendation: Standard lab tests at your annual physical can detect CKD, enabling you and your doctor to slow its progression.
Your arteries are clogged
Little-known fact: Standard heart tests at your annual physical—and ECG and, in some cases, a stress test—aren’t good at detecting clogged arteries until they’re 70 percent blocked. You could ace both tests and still be on your way to a heart attack. Luckily, more advanced imaging and blood tests are available, along with genetic screening, to uncover arterial issues before they lead to heart disease.
Recommendation: Talk to your doctor about your personal and family health history to determine if it’s time for a more extensive peek under your hood.
Your heartbeat is irregular
One in four Americans over the age of 40 could develop an irregular heartbeat, otherwise known as atrial fibrillation (AF or A-Fib). According to Harvard Medical School, because A-Fib reduces the heart’s pumping efficiency—by anywhere from 10 to 30 percent—it can lead to heart failure, angina and stroke.
Recommendation: If you’re experiencing an irregular heartbeat — which can be indicated by a fluttering in your chest — talk to your doctor, who can run basic tests like an ECG or refer you to a cardiologist, who may prescribe medication or other therapies. If you regularly wear an Apple Watch, you might want to enable the new ECG app, which can alert you to signs of A-Fib (although it makes no guarantees, and definitely does not determine if you’re having a heart attack).
You’re chronically dehydrated
Our bodies need fluid to keep their processes running smoothly. Unfortunately, as we age, the water content of our bodies naturally declines. Chronic dehydration can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, and in more extreme cases, kidney failure.
Recommendation: To ensure you’re adequately hydrated, follow experts’ guidelines: Drink 1.7 liters (or 7 cups) of water every 24 hours.
Eye problems could be the sign of something worse
Concerns about eye health are a natural part of getting older—we know to be on guard for conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma. But did you know vision issues can signal bigger health problems? According to the American Diabetes Association, people with diabetes are 60 percent more likely to develop cataracts and 40 percent more likely to suffer from glaucoma.
Recommendation: If you’re dealing with either of these eye issues, get your blood sugar tested.
You could develop osteoporosis
According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, this bone-weakening condition affects 44 million U.S. adults over the age of 50. And it’s not just your hips and spine that are at risk: Dental problems like receding gums and tooth loss can also be caused by osteoporosis.
Recommendation: Be sure that your diet contains adequate calcium and vitamin D to support bone health. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you; they might provide a referral to a nutritionist, who can help you plan creative, satisfying meals (good news: many insurance companies cover that). Avoid smoking or excessive alcohol—both can weaken bones. (Do your joints ache? Here’s a surprising reason why.)
You’re at risk for breast cancer
The risk of developing breast cancer increases as women age. By age 40, that risk is 3.5 times higher than it was at age 30.
Recommendation: After age 40, you should get an annual mammogram. Doing regular breast self-exams has been a bit controversial in recent years—some researchers say they haven’t been proven to save lives. We say they can’t hurt. At the very least, be aware of how your breasts look and feel, and alert your doctor to any changes, such as lumps, dimpling of the skin, or inversion of the nipple.
You’re at risk for ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer is known as a silent killer because early detection is difficult. As you age, it’s important to be vigilant about possible symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society, most ovarian cancers develop after menopause, and more than half of cases are in women over age 63.
Recommendation: If you experience bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, or feel full quickly when eating, consult your doctor. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, tell your doctor about it. He or she might decide that more extensive or periodic testing is necessary.
You’re pre-diabetic or have Type 2 diabetes
While type 2 diabetes can strike at any age, your risk of developing the disease increases significantly after age 40. Left untreated, the condition can lead to severe complications, including heart disease, vision problems, even poor circulation that can require amputation. It’s so important a) to know if you have the condition; and b) to follow your doctor’s recommendations—from medication to lifestyle changes—to get it under control.
Recommendation: The American Diabetes Association recommends a regular diabetes screening for all adults over 45.
You’re at risk of tooth weakening and loss
It’s an unfortunate fact of aging: The hardware starts to go. And some of it can’t be upgraded without great expense—namely, teeth. The natural effect of time and wear on teeth can lead to cracking, cavities and plaque buildup; if you neglect regular trips to the dentist, this can lead to gum recession and tooth weakening and loss. That, in turn, can lead to chronic pain and malnutrition.
Recommendation: Get regular dental checkups and practice good oral hygiene daily. Drink tap water, not bottled, to expose your teeth to strengthening fluoride. And a fluoride rinse can help reinforce teeth and keep gums healthy—use one twice every day.
You could develop deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
The odds that you’ll develop deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, increase as you age (although it can develop at any age). That’s when a blood clot forms deep in your veins, and can be serious or fatal if a piece of the clot breaks off and travels to the lungs or the heart.
Recommendation: According to the Mayo Clinic, the best ways to prevent DVT include not sitting still for long periods of time (if you’re on a long plane trip, you should get up and move around occasionally), maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and getting regular exercise, which lowers the risk of blood clotting.
You could develop an aneurysm
Most of us think of aneurysms as a freak occurrence or figure of speech (as in, chill out; don’t have one). In reality, the condition is quite simple: A dangerous ballooning of a vein—in the brain, the heart, or in arteries throughout the body, such as in the abdomen—that can cause serious problems if it bursts. According to the National Institutes of Health, they’re most common between the ages of 30 and 60. So once you hit 40, you’re squarely in the danger zone.
Recommendation: Keep your blood pressure in a healthy range, eat a heart-healthy diet and manage stress.
You’re at greater risk of stroke
Like an aneurysm, a stroke is often regarded as an almost mythical condition. Let’s call it what it is: A brain attack, much like a heart attack. According to UCLA Medical School, a stroke occurs when a blood vessel that brings blood and oxygen to the brain becomes clogged or ruptures, potentially leading to paralysis, neurological problems or death. As with heart attacks, the risk of strokes increases as we age — and the vast majority can be prevented. The National Stroke Association says that up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable.
Recommendation: Keep your blood pressure down and weight in a healthy range. If you have high cholesterol, diabetes or AFib, get them under control — all are risk factors for stroke, according to the NSA. Likewise: Don’t smoke, and keep your alcohol intake under two drinks a day.
You might think you’re not at risk for sexually transmitted infections
In later life, many people find themselves single again, and facing a dating scene that’s radically different than it may have been the last time around. (And we don’t just mean remembering the distinction between swiping right and left.) It’s important to remember that sexually transmitted infections aren’t just for the young. In fact, according to the CDC, among people aged 55 and older, chlamydia cases nearly doubled and gonorrhea cases nearly tripled between 2013 and 2017. And they don’t always make themselves apparent: Chlamydia and gonorrhea can be passed along relatively symptom-free, but can lead to complications like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women.
Recommendation: It may be awkward, but talk to your doctor about your sexual health, safer-sex practices, and if you should be screened for STIs regularly. (Spoiler alert: If you’re sexually active, you should).
You’re at an increased risk for colon cancer
The primary risk factor for colon cancer: Being older than 50. And the disease is starting to show up more often in younger people: The American Cancer Society just lowered its recommended age for a first colonoscopy from age 50 to 45 for people to average risk; data shows that it saves lives.
Recommendation: Get that first colonoscopy, if you haven’t already. And follow guidelines for repeat procedures: Currently, it’s advised that you repeat the test every 10 years. But that could change. And there are a lot of options for screening, including a yearly stool-based test, or a less extensive exam called a flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years. Talk to your doctor about your family history, any digestive symptoms, and what’s right for you.
You have acid reflux
Heartburn, or acid reflux, is more than just a nuisance that can prevent you from enjoying Italian food and coffee or getting a good night’s sleep. Over time, the backing-up of acid from the stomach into the esophagus can damage the pipe’s sensitive lining, leading to a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus, and in some cases, esophageal cancer, a form of the disease with a particularly low cure rate.
Recommendation: If you suffer from regular heartburn, don’t just suffer in silence or pop antacids. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms; he or she might recommend a prescription and/or testing. Damage to the esophagus can be prevented or healed if caught in time.