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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 or may not change. This depends 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 the body to control its temperature. Decrease in the amount of subcutaneous 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 (hyperthermia or heat stroke). You can also be at risk of dangerous drops in body temperature (hypothermia).
Fever is an important sign of illness in older persons. Fever is often the only symptom for several days of an illness. Any fever that is not explained by a known illness should be checked by a health care provider.
During an infection, the body of an older person 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 exercising, it may take longer for your pulse to increase and longer to slow down afterward. Your highest heart rate with exercise is also lower than before.
Breathing rate usually does not change with age. But lung function decreases slightly. Healthy older persons can usually breathe without effort.
Risk of having high blood pressure (hypertension) increases as you get older. Other heart-related problems common in older adults include:
- Very slow pulse (bradycardia) or very fast pulse (tachycardia)
- Heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias) such as atrial fibrillation
Effects of Medicines on Vital Signs
Medicines that are used to treat health problems in older persons 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:
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.
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.