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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 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.

BODY TEMPERATURE

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 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.

BLOOD PRESSURE

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 digoxin 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, most often when changing body position too quickly.

OTHER CHANGES

As you grow older, you will have other changes, including:

References

Chen JC. Approach to the geriatric patient. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 183.

Schiger DL. Approach to the patient with abnormal vital signs. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 8.

Walston JD. Common clinical sequelae of aging. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 25.

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      Aerobic exercise

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    • Taking your carotid pulse

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    • Radial pulse

      Radial pulse

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    • Warming up and cooling down

      Warming up and coo...

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    • Effects of age on blood pressure

      Effects of age on ...

      Illustration

      • Aerobic exercise

        Aerobic exercise

        Illustration

      • Taking your carotid pulse

        Taking your caroti...

        Illustration

      • Radial pulse

        Radial pulse

        Illustration

      • Warming up and cooling down

        Warming up and coo...

        Illustration

      • Effects of age on blood pressure

        Effects of age on ...

        Illustration

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      Review Date: 7/12/2018

      Reviewed By: 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, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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