Initially, Johnson, now 77, thought she was depressed. She could barely summon the energy to get dressed in the morning. Some days, she couldn’t get out of bed.
But as she began to get her affairs in order, Johnson realized something else was going on. However long she slept the night before, she woke up exhausted. She felt depleted, even if she didn’t do much during the day.
“People would tell me, ‘You know, you’re getting old.’ And that wasn’t helpful at all. Because then you feel there’s nothing you can do mentally or physically to deal with this,” she told me.
Fatigue is a common companion of many illnesses that beset older adults: heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, lung disease, kidney disease, and neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis, among others. It’s one of the most common symptoms associated with chronic illness, affecting 40% to 74% of older people living with these conditions, according to a 2021 review by researchers at the University of Massachusetts.
Fatigue doesn’t represent “a day when you’re tired; it’s a couple of weeks or a couple of months when you’re tired,” said Dr. Kurt Kroenke, a research scientist at the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, which specializes in medical research, and a professor at Indiana University’s School of Medicine.
When he and colleagues queried nearly 3,500 older patients at a large primary care clinic in Indianapolis about bothersome symptoms, 55% listed fatigue — second only to musculoskeletal pain (65%) and more than back pain (45%) and shortness of breath (41%).
The impact can be profound. Fatigue is the leading reason for restricted activity in people 70 and older, according to a 2001 study by researchers at Yale. Other studies have linked fatigue with impaired mobility, limitations in people’s abilities to perform daily activities, the onset or worsening of disability, and earlier death.
What often happens is older adults with fatigue stop being active and become deconditioned, which leads to muscle loss and weakness, which heightens fatigue. “It becomes a vicious cycle that contributes to things like depression, which can make you more fatigued,” said Dr. Jean Kutner, a professor of medicine and chief medical officer at the University of Colorado Hospital.
To stop that from happening, Johnson came up with a plan after learning her lung cancer had returned. Every morning, she set small goals for herself. One day, she’d get up and wash her face. The next, she’d take a shower. Another day, she’d go to the grocery store. After each activity, she’d rest.
When should older adults be concerned about fatigue? “If someone has been doing OK but is now feeling fatigued all the time, it’s important to get an evaluation,” said Dr. Holly Yang, a physician at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego and incoming board president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.
“Fatigue is an alarm signal that something is wrong with the body but it’s rarely one thing. Usually, several things need to be addressed,” said Dr. Ardeshir Hashmi, section chief of the Center for Geriatric Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
Many potential contributors to fatigue can be addressed. But much of the time, reasons for fatigue can’t be explained by an underlying medical condition.
That happened to Teresa Goodell, 64, a retired nurse who lives just outside Portland, Oregon. During a December visit to Arizona, she suddenly found herself exhausted and short of breath while on a hike, even though she was in good physical condition. At an urgent care facility, she was diagnosed with an asthma exacerbation and given steroids, but they didn’t help.
Soon, Goodell was spending hours each day in bed, overcome by profound tiredness and weakness. Even small activities wore her out. But none of the medical tests she received in Arizona and subsequently in Portland — a chest X-ray and CT scan, blood work, a cardiac stress test — showed abnormalities.
Goodell started visiting long covid web sites and chat rooms for people with chronic fatigue syndrome. Today, she’s convinced she has post-viral syndrome from an infection. One of the most common symptoms of long covid is fatigue that interferes with daily life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are several strategies for dealing with persistent fatigue. In cancer patients, “the best evidence favors physical activity such as tai chi, yoga, walking, or low-impact exercises,” said Dr. Christian Sinclair, an associate professor of palliative medicine at the University of Kansas Health System. The goal is to “gradually stretch patients’ stamina,” he said.
“So much of fatigue management is about forming new habits,” said Dr. Ishwaria Subbiah, a palliative care and integrative medicine physician at MD Anderson. “It’s important to recognize that this doesn’t happen right away: It takes time.”
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KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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