Why You May Be Feeling More Fatigued As You Age

Fatigue is a common malady associated with aging, and its causes can range from suffering from a chronic illness to poor nutrition.

By Kari Apted | Published

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Fatigue becomes more common as we grow older. Even though it’s something nearly all older adults experience from time to time, its causes are hugely varied and sometimes cannot be identified at all. Because fatigue is linked to many serious health conditions, older people should always try to uncover the reason behind feeling more fatigued.

According to Kaiser Health News (KHN), fatigue is one of the most common symptoms associated with chronic illness, including those that often plague older adults. These illnesses include cancer, heart disease, lung disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis. A 2021 review by the University of Massachusetts found that 40 to 74 percent of older people living with these chronic illnesses experienced bouts of fatigue.

But fatigue is not the same as feeling tired after a night of interrupted sleep or a day packed with activities. Instead, it’s a full-body lack of energy, the feeling that someone pulled the plug and all your vigor and strength has drained out. Fatigue can last for weeks or months, and it often feels like nothing you do to alleviate it actually helps.

“I feel like I have a drained battery pretty much all of the time,” said a woman named Renee in a Facebook group for people suffering from a rare type of blood cancer. “It’s sort of like being a wrung-out dish rag.” Not only does cancer itself cause exhaustion, but the therapies and medications used to treat it can also exacerbate the effect.

Dr. Kurt Kroenke, a research scientist at the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis and a professor at Indiana University’s School of Medicine, agrees that fatigue is a different experience than simply being tired. He explained that 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.” He and other researchers asked nearly 3,500 patients aged 60 years and older to talk about bothersome symptoms.

They found that 55 percent of respondents listed fatigue as one of their most difficult symptoms. Only musculoskeletal pain ranked higher, at 65 percent. The third most bothersome symptom was back pain, at 45 percent, and shortness of breath at 41 percent.

Excessive fatigue has been a malady for older people even before the pandemic introduced long Covid and other tiring factors. A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that about 31 percent of people aged 51 and older reported feeling fatigued within the past week. It also cited polls taken in the 1970s that showed about 20 percent of older Americans reporting frequent fatigue.

The impact of fatigue on the older population is often profound. The KHN article shares that it is the leading cause of restricted activity in those aged 70 or older. Additional difficulties linked to fatigue include trouble with performing daily activities, impaired mobility, and the onset or worsening of disability.

Perhaps most alarming, fatigue can be a predictor of earlier death. “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. Dr. Ardeshir Hashmi, section chief of the Center for Geriatric Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, says that fatigue is like an alarm for middle-aged and elderly people and warrants examination to discover the cause.

Thyroid levels, sleep habits, electrolyte imbalances, poor nutrition, mental health condition, and even hydration levels are among the possible contributors to ongoing fatigue. Seeing a doctor can help you determine the reason your “fatigue alarm” is sounding and uncover strategies to regain some of your energy. It can take time to form new habits that combat fatigue, so be patient with yourself and ask for support from family and friends.