“It’s Just a Cough”: Little Warning Signs That Can Signal Bigger Issues as You Age

Dry skin. Tingling feet. An aching shoulder. A lingering cough. Blurry vision.

Our bodies often send out signals when something needs attention. And as we age, it can be hard to know which changes in our bodies are normal signs of the aging process and which could be cause for greater concern.

Most of us don’t want to sprint to the doctor at every runny nose or aching joint. But at the same time, we don’t want to find ourselves wishing we had, when something more concerning is uncovered.

It can be tricky to find that middle ground, but nobody knows your body better than you do, so listen to it and pay attention to any changes — big or small – to help you determine your best course of action.

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What to ask yourself

There are many important questions to ask yourself when you notice a new symptom: Have you ever experienced this symptom before? How intense is it? How long does it last? Did it happen just once, is it periodic or is it consistently present? The answers to these questions can help you determine what you might choose to discuss with your doctor or when to seek more immediate medical care.

“If you aren’t quite sure what to do next, services like UnitedHealthcare’s NurseLine1 provide 24/7 phone access to a registered nurse to talk through your symptoms,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Retiree Solutions. “You can then discuss options ranging from self-care and over-the-counter treatments, to scheduling a primary care appointment or virtual doctor’s visit, to stopping by an urgent care center or emergency room.”

What to watch for

It’s important to become familiar with simple and sometimes little-known symptoms associated with the gradual aging process that, when appearing in older adults, also can be indicators of more significant conditions.

Some symptoms can signal possible medical emergencies or urgent concerns, such as:

  • Heart attack: Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack, and symptoms vary by gender. They can include pain in the jaw, neck or back, nausea and feeling light-headed or the more commonly-known shortness of breath, a tight feeling or intense pressure in the chest and pain in the arm.
  • Stroke: Numbness or drooping in the face, trouble seeing out of one or both eyes, slurred speech, dizziness and lack of coordination can all be stroke-related symptoms. And while a key to surviving and minimizing the effects of a stroke is to get to the hospital quickly, one in three people who have a stroke do not call 911.
  • Flu and pneumonia: Symptoms can include cough, fever, chills and trouble breathing. Many people don’t seek medical treatment for flu-like symptoms even though the flu kills up to 56,000 people a year and left untreated can lead to pneumonia, which is even deadlier.

Other symptoms may indicate a yet-undiagnosed chronic condition, including:

  • Diabetes: The onset of certain symptoms related to Type 2 diabetes often goes unnoticed, delaying diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms that can appear slowly and over a long period of time include: dry skin, increased thirst, the need to urinate often, tingling in your hands and feet, blurry vision, and feeling tired and run down.
  • Macular degeneration: Blurry vision, loss of central vision, trouble reading in low light, and straight lines appearing wavy are markers of macular degeneration. Treatment can slow the condition’s progression if caught early enough.
  • Osteoporosis: Often has no symptoms. But back pain, rounded shoulders, stooped or hunched-over posture and loss of height could be indication of bone loss or fractures due to osteoporosis. Older adults — both women and men — should talk to their doctor about getting a bone density scan.
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: In addition to the more commonly known symptoms like forgetfulness or losing/misplacing items, other early signs of these conditions include taking longer to complete everyday activities and mood or personality changes. Alzheimer’s symptoms typically begin showing after age 60 and the likelihood of developing it doubles every five years after age 65. Ask your doctor about getting a yearly screening during your annual wellness visit.

Why to seek treatment

Detecting and addressing symptoms early on often can prevent or minimize certain conditions, through immediate treatment or lifestyle changes. However, people sometimes downplay the symptoms or want to avoid the perceived hassle and cost of medical treatment. Almost 10 percent of Medicare beneficiaries said in a 2013 survey that they did not seek medical care for a medical condition, with the two most frequent reasons being they did not think the problem was serious or it might be too expensive.

What you might not consider is that seeking medical care in the earliest stages of an illness can make it easier and more affordable to treat. A doctor visit and a course of antibiotics will typically cost much less than a stay in the hospital. The more time a condition or disease has to take hold without being addressed, the harder it could be to treat and get it under control.

For many conditions, early symptoms are subtle, simple and common, so it’s important to pay attention to what your body might be telling you. Even better? Schedule your annual wellness visit so you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’re being proactive about your health and working with your doctor to take control of your well-being.

Take care of your body and let it take care of you.


Plans are insured through UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or one of its affiliated companies. For Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plans: A Medicare Advantage organization with a Medicare contract and a Medicare-approved Part D sponsor. Enrollment in these plans depends on the plan’s contract renewal with Medicare. This information is not a complete description of benefits. Contact the plan for more information. Limitations, copayments, and restrictions may apply. <Benefits, premium and/or copayments/coinsurance> may change on January 1 of each year.

1This service should not be used for emergency or urgent care needs. In an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. The information provided through this service is for informational purposes only. The nurses cannot diagnose problems or recommend treatment and are not a substitute for your doctor's care. Your health information is kept confidential in accordance with the law. Access to this service is subject to terms of use.

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