Aging changes in vital signs
Vital signs include body temperature, heart rate (pulse), breathing rate, and blood pressure. As you age, your vital signs may change, depending on how healthy you are. Some medical problems can cause changes in one or more vital signs.
Checking your vital signs helps your health care provider monitor your health and any medical problems you may have.
Normal body temperature does not change much with aging. But as you get older, it becomes harder for your body to control its temperature. A decrease in the amount of fat below the skin makes it harder to stay warm. You may need to wear layers of clothing to feel warm.
Aging decreases your ability to sweat. You may have difficulty telling when you are becoming overheated. This puts you at high risk of overheating (heat stroke). You can also be at risk for dangerous drops in body temperature.
Fever is an important sign of illness in older people. It is often the only symptom for several days of an illness. See your health care provider if you have a fever that is not explained by a known illness.
A fever is also a sign of infection. When an older person has an infection, their body may not be able to produce a higher temperature. For this reason, it is important to check other vital signs, as well as any symptoms and signs of infection.
HEART RATE AND BREATHING RATE
As you grow older, your pulse rate is about the same as before. But when you exercise, it may take longer for your pulse to increase and longer for it to slow down afterward. Your highest heart rate with exercise is also lower than it was when you were younger.
Breathing rate usually does not change with age. But lung function decreases slightly. Healthy older people can usually breathe without effort.
Older people may become dizzy when standing up too quickly. This is due to a sudden drop in blood pressure. This kind of drop in blood pressure when standing is called orthostatic hypotension.
Risk of having high blood pressure (hypertension) increases as you get older. Other heart-related problems common in older adults include:
EFFECTS OF MEDICINES ON VITAL SIGNS
Medicines that are used to treat health problems in older people can affect the vital signs. For example, the medicine digitalis used for heart failure and blood pressure medicines called beta blockers may cause the pulse to slow.
Diuretics (water pills) can cause low blood pressure, especially when changing body position too quickly.
As you grow older, you will have other changes, including:
Chester JG. Vital signs in older patients: age-related changes. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2011;12:5:337-43.
Duthie ER. History and physical examination. In: Duthie EH, Katz PR, Malone ML, eds. Practice of Geriatrics. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2007:chap 1.
Minaker KL. Common clinical sequelae of aging. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 24.
Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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