We’re always being told to watch out for symptoms. It can be a lifesaver to know the warning signs of a stroke or heart attack, or to get a suspicious mole checked out to protect against melanoma. But not all scary symptoms are really…symptoms. Some are just harmless signs of our bodies and minds getting a little older, or just odd quirks that can happen at any age.
“It’s about context,” says geriatrician Maryjo L. Cleveland, M.D. “When you’re 25, and stressed, and you park at 7:30 a.m. and then at 5 you can’t find your car, you don’t think, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting dementia!’ But when you’re 65, that might be the first thing you think.”
Stay on the safe side
If something is bothering you, it’s always a good idea to get it checked out by your doctor. “Most symptoms will turn out to be insignificant, but without input from a medical professional, it’s virtually impossible to separate the significant from the insignificant,” says internist Charles Cutler, M.D. “Plus, nothing is better for the psyche than hearing, ‘The tests are normal.’”
All that said, read on for symptoms that are likely harmless, and put your fears to rest.
1. Symptom: You forget things
“Many memory glitches happen to young people, too” says Dr. Cleveland. “You’re stressed, rushed, tired, or you have one too many drinks. It doesn’t mean you have Alzheimer’s. It’s a matter of degree. If you forget where your keys are, that’s one thing; if you forget what your keys do, that’s another.”
Another example: Missing your turn on the way home because you’re distracted — versus not remembering how to drive home.
So what’s normal? “It may take you longer to learn new skills,” says Dr. Cleveland. “You used to be able to remember a 10-digit phone number, and now it’s a little harder. You have trouble finding the right word quickly in the midst of a conversation. These are normal memory problems that don’t require a visit to the doctor.”
One tip is whether the thing you couldn’t remember comes to you later, says Jessica Lee, MD. “If you remember it a few minutes later, that indicates you’re remembering things pretty well, but your recall is slower.” If you’re worried about forgetfulness, however, “Have a conversation with your primary care provider — and talk to family members.”
2. Symptom: You have heart palpitations
If you’re 17 and your heart races or skips a beat, it might be love. If you’re 55, you worry about your heart. In many cases, it’s just stress, emotion, exercise — or too much coffee. But get it checked out if you’re worried. “Heart palpitations should never be ignored,” says Dr. Cutler. They could signal a heart rhythm abnormality such as atrial fibrillation, he says.
How long a racing heart or skipped beat lasts is one sign, says Dr. Cleveland. “The not serious ones last just a few seconds or a minute, but if it lasts over a minute or into a few minutes, I worry there may be something else going on,” she says. Other signs of concern: If it happens several times a day, and if it happens not when you’re stressed or emotional or exercising, but just, say, sitting and watching TV.
Once a structural problem has been ruled out, though, you can relax, says Dr. Cutler.
3. Symptom: You’re often cold
Aging can be cold. Literally. You may have less muscle and body mass than you used to, so there’s less insulation. “There can be a change in the internal thermostat, too, when you get older,” says Dr. Lee.
If it’s a big change, or comes on suddenly, however, get it checked out. “The first thing we check is the thyroid,” says Dr. Lee. If you’re always a hot person and suddenly you’re freezing, that’s a reason to be suspicious that something is going on with your thyroid.” Adds Dr. Cutler, “If it’s associated with a lot of sweating, that should be looked at. But if it comes on slowly, and you’ve been feeling this way for years, it’s mostly likely a benign aging process.”
4. Symptom: You can’t hear high-pitched sounds
This actually starts to happen in your 30s. “Almost everyone begins to get high-pitched hearing loss,” says Dr. Cleveland. “I’m 51 and I have it. It’s normal aging, not a problem.”
If other hearing problems bother you, though, see your doctor. “I commonly see a buildup of wax in the ears, which can obstruct airflow through the ear,” says Dr. Cutler. “It can cause a lot of trouble with hearing, but as soon as the wax is removed, the problem is solved.”
5. Symptom: Your knees pop
That’s nothing to worry about — now. But it is a subtle early sign of osteoarthritis. “You’ve worn the cartilage down,” says Dr. Lee. “It just means you have some arthritis in your knees.” If it doesn’t hurt, there’s no reason to treat it. But it might be a wake-up call to start a regular exercise program. Losing weight takes pressure off your knees, too. “We recommend just simple walking,” she says. If you do have knee pain, she suggests, try walking in a pool. “Stay in the shallow lanes and just walk.”
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Knowing when to ignore body quirks and when to get them checked out by your doctor is as much an art as a science. “There are patients I see, and I say to them, ‘I just saw you for this two months ago, why are you back?’” says Dr. Cleveland. “Others go two years with a problem before they come to me, and I say, ‘Why didn’t you come in earlier?’”