By
msnbc.com contributor

Explainer:

  • Doctors often tell us to listen to our bodies.  But when we face those aches, pains, pops and twitches, are they a sign of something seriously wrong — or just the harmless by-products of a life well lived? In other words: Are we just getting old?

    These six symptoms could spell annoying but harmless signs of aging — or they could indicate you should get something checked out.

  • You're always cold

    It’s probably: Nothing.

    Even though the mercury’s only dropped slightly, are you always in the middle of a Siberian deep freeze? Older folks do run colder due to slowed circulation and lower metabolic rates, but people of all ages gripe about being chilly.

    Image:
    Nati Harnik  /  AP

    “Most of the time when people complain about feeling cold we don’t find a reason. There’s probably something going on in their temperature regulation center,” says Dr. Diane Krieger, head of the diabetes care center at South Miami Hospital. Since temperature regulation takes place in the brain’s hypothalamus, which is affected by hormones, everything from PMS to pregnancy can rejigger your thermostat. 

    It could be: A thyroid problem or anemia. The thyroid influences how swiftly you produce and use energy. If it’s not working correctly, the body slows and can feel sluggish and wintry. If you feel frosty all the time, ask your doc for blood work. And if the blood work turns up normal, then Lrieger advises to dress in layers and kick up the heat.

  • Heart palpitations

    It’s probably:

    The result of too much caffeine, not enough sleep, stress, a decongestant or steroid medications like Prednisone. Heart palpitation is a general term for a rapid, skipped or fluttering heartbeat, and you needn’t be old to have them. In fact, for women, any flux of hormone levels such as being premenstrual, pregnant or peri-menopausal can cause palpitations.

    Image: A cup of cappuccino stands on a table at a branch of Costa coffee in Knutsford
    Phil Noble  /  Reuters

    “In an otherwise healthy person who has palpitations, most of them are not a precursor to a heart attack,” says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of NYU Women's Heart Program.

    It could be: Something more serious if you have palpitations that last more than 15 minutes, you feel lightheaded, dizzy or faint.

    “If you have palpitations, you are not crazy — you have palpitations,” says Goldberg. “And any doctor who sees you should evaluate those palpitations.” Your doc will schedule an EKG and perhaps have you wear a heart monitor to detect anything suspicious.

  • Achy eyes

    Image: Iamge: Social networking etiquette
    Chris Newton  /  Getty Images stock

    It’s probably: Eye strain, too much computer time or a lot of late nights at the office. “Achy eyes are very common as people age,” says Dr. Brian Bonanni, an ophthalmologist and medical director of Gotham Lasik Vision in New York City.

    As we get older, our eyes become drier and after all day in front of the screen or hours of reading, they can feel tired, strained and achy. Look away from the computer and blink a few times every hour, or try an over-the-counter artificial tear product a couple of times per day or up to once an hour depending on symptoms.

    It could be: A chronic inflammatory condition like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or a thyroid problem. These disorders can affect not only the eye muscle but cause dry eye, which leads to that achy feeling. “If it’s an occasional ache, it’s not a problem generally, but obviously if it increases in severity or frequency, it should be checked out,” says Bonanni.

  • Shaky hands

    It’s probably: An annoying sign of age. Essential tremor, or hand shaking, used to be called benign or senile tremor because one in five people over 65 had it. For many, the shaking begins in young adulthood and becomes more obvious with age, occurring during movement. If mom or dad has essential tremor, there’s a 50 percent chance their kids will develop it, too.

    “For most it is mild, but it can be embarrassing or affect performance, like the ability to play an instrument,” says Dr. Jane Sadler, family medicine practitioner at Baylor Medical Care System in Garland, Texas. Essential tremor can also involve the head and voice. Physical therapy, beta blockers and even Botox have been used to still the shaking.

    It could be: Something more serious like an overactive thyroid, so get any shaking evaluated by your doctor. You may need an EMG (a test of the electrical muscles of the body) and blood work. Your doc will watch the tremor, and ask when it occurs. Tremors with Parkinson’s are more noticeable when the hands are at rest; plus, Parkinson’s does not affect the head or voice, so it’s easily distinguished from essential tremor by your doc.

  • Popping knees

    Image:
    Haraz N. Ghanbari  /  AP

    It’s probably: Just a benign noise in the front of the kneecap that happens when you move from a seated position to a standing one. Joint popping is not painful and generally, it’s not much of a worry. People develop it in their mid 40s because the cartilage in the knee wears down, just like the tread on the tires of a car.

    “The kneecap runs in a groove in the front of the knee, and if it’s just a little bit out of alignment within the groove, the cartilage behind the kneecap will wear a little and you get that popping or even a crunching sensation,” says Dr. William Doherty, a Boston-area orthopedic surgeon.  Popping is more common in women than men because their kneecaps are smaller and slip out of alignment easier.

    It could be: More of a problem if it’s accompanied by pain. Some people’s knees hurt when climbing stairs, and women who wear high heels a lot may have bum knees. Others might be prone to pain if they’ve had a previous injury from a fall, or an athletic or dashboard injury, where the knee smashes the dash in a car accident. To reduce soreness, maintain good quadriceps muscle tone with exercises such as bicycling, walking or swimming. Well-toned quads keep the kneecap as close to the center of its groove as it should be, preventing pain.

  • Eyelid twitches

    It’s probably: Nothing to worry about. “Any irritation to the eye itself can cause a twitching reflex where the nerve gets irritated and causes the muscle to twitch,” says Bonanni, the New York opthamologist. They’re very common, especially as we age. Caffeine, stress, medication side effects and fatigue may cause them to come on. Even acute anxiety can result in twitches. Eye twitching may be nothing more than a sign you need to chill out a bit.

    It could be: Blepharospasm, a condition characterized by abnormal involuntary blinking or spasms of the eyelids. Some doctors refer to it as blinking disorder. It may be caused by chemical messengers getting mixed in the basal ganglia of the brain. It could also be a medication side effect. If eyelid twitching occurs daily or gets progressively worse, have it evaluated by your eye professional or family doc. Botox injections may work to paralyze the muscles of the eyelid and eliminate the twitch.

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