Person checking their temperature to see if they have a common health problem like cold or flu

Many medical problems—such as heartburn or a fall—are easy to bounce back from when you’re a teenager or young adult. But as we get older, seemingly small problems are more likely to balloon into serious ones, says Michael Hochman, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Gehr Family Center for Health Systems Science at Keck Medicine of USC.

Here are four problems not to ignore.

1. Flu

The problem: The immune system ­often gets weaker with age, making people older than 65 more likely to catch an infec­tious disease and get sicker when they do.

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“The strain that a simple flu puts on an older person’s lungs might be enough to make them susceptible to a life-threatening pneumonia,” Hochman says. Between 70 and 90 percent of flu-­related deaths, and 50 and 70 percent of all flu-­related hospitalizations, occur among older adults.

The fix: Get the flu vaccine every year, avoid people who are sick, and wash your hands frequently. If you get the flu, contact your doctor early to ask about antiviral treatment. Potentially dangerous flu symptoms, such as shortness of breath, pressure in the chest, sudden dizziness, confusion, vomiting, and high fever, should prompt a trip to an emergency room. 

2. Heartburn

The problem: Occasional heartburn can usually be remedied by an over-the-counter antacid. But many years of heartburn—especially in its chronic form, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—can cause a thinning of the esophageal tissue that lines the throat, Hochman says. And older adults can be more susceptible to the serious side effects (such as bacterial infections) of proton pump inhibitors, the prescription medications used to treat GERD. These should never be taken for longer than a year.

The fix: Lifestyle interventions are key. Losing weight, avoiding foods that cause symptoms, exercising, and not eating for a few hours before bedtime can help. 

3. Mood Changes

The problem: Reduced activity, adjustments to life changes, and medications (including blood pressure prescriptions, opioids, and hormone treatments) can affect mood, says Nathaniel Chin, M.D., a geriatrician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. Seemingly unrelated ailments, such as hypothyroidism and vitamin defi­ciencies, can also trigger mood changes.

The fix: Bring up any feelings of depression or anxiety with your physician, Chin says. He or she can help you identify the cause and formulate a treatment plan

4. Trips and Falls

The problem: As part of the natural ­aging process, bones lose minerals, making them thinner and more brittle. And about 10 percent of Americans 50 and older have osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease. That’s part of why a minor fall later in life can sometimes result in a broken bone.

Hip fractures, for example, can keep people off their feet for several weeks, raising the risk of blood clots, pneumonia, and other complications, Hoch­man says. And medications—including diuretics, beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, antidepressants, and sleeping pills—can cause dizziness, putting users at an increased risk of falls.

The fix: If you have frequent dizzy spells, talk to your doctor about whether one of your medications could be the culprit.

To help prevent falls, be sure to wear sturdy shoes, have your vision checked yearly, and eliminate home hazards. (Secure loose rugs and place nonslip adhesives on the bottom of the bathtub, for example.) Keep your bones strong, too. Make sure you’re getting at least 1,200 mg of calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D each day if you’re older than 70. And try to regularly engage in weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or lifting light weights

Tips to Handle a Medical Emergency

Health emergencies can happen at any time. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Lauren Friedman explains how you can be best prepared.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.