For the elderly, prevention focuses mainly on disease, frailty, accidents (ie, unintentional injury), iatrogenic complications, and psychosocial problems. Not all elderly patients benefit from every preventive measure. Choice of preventive measures is guided by the patient's general condition:
Some preventive measures apply to all elderly people. For example, exercise can help prevent frailty in healthy or chronically ill elderly people. In frail elderly people, exercise can help preserve functional ability and reduce the incidence of accidents. Influenza vaccination (yearly) and pneumococcal vaccination (needed only once, except for patients at high risk) are effective, inexpensive, and associated with minimal morbidity.
Patient and caregiver issues:
Healthy elderly people should visit their primary care physician at least annually to ensure timely completion of primary and secondary disease prevention measures, including screening (see Table 3: Prevention of Disease and Disability in the Elderly: Screening Recommendations For Elderly Patients and Table 4: Prevention of Disease and Disability in the Elderly: Cancer Screening Recommendations For Elderly Patients) and chemoprevention (eg, vaccination, aspirin—see Table 1: Prevention of Disease and Disability in the Elderly: Chemoprevention and Immunization For Elderly Patients). For more information, see recommendations for clinical preventive services from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).
Medicare covers a comprehensive “Welcome to Medicare” preventive physical examination, which must occur within 6 mo of Part B enrollment.
Regular exercise (see Exercise: Exercise in the Elderly) and a healthy diet (see Table 5: Prevention of Disease and Disability in the Elderly: Nutritional Recommendations for Prevention of Frailty) help prevent or postpone frailty and many diseases, as can other disease prevention measures (see Table 2: Prevention of Disease and Disability in the Elderly: Lifestyle Measures That Help Prevent Common Chronic Diseases). Chronically ill patients should learn about their diseases and treatment plans, as should their caregivers. Regular physician visits and prompt reporting of a change in symptoms can help reduce severe disease exacerbations, which can lead to hospitalization and functional decline.
Caregivers of the frail elderly must work assiduously to prevent accidents by completing a home safety checklist and correcting any potential problems that are identified. Caregivers should watch for even subtle functional changes in elderly patients and promptly report any changes to a health care practitioner. If a patient has multiple unmet needs, especially when coupled with functional decline, a caregiver should consider seeking the care of a geriatric interdisciplinary team.
Last full review/revision December 2009 by James T. Pacala, MD, MS
Content last modified July 2012