9 Warning Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore

Taking quick action when you have symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath could save your life.

By Jocelyn Voo
Mount Sinai School of Medicine Focus on Healthy Aging newsletter | March 2007



Creaking joints, a sore neck, the occasional bout of insomnia—just natural signs of wear and tear as you age, right? Not necessarily. For example, nighttime tossing and turning can indicate a need to adjust your sleep habits to the natural sleep changes that occur with aging, or it could reflect a medication issue, poor sleep hygiene, obstructive sleep apnea, or even depression. Discussing any symptom you’re experiencing with your doctor is the crucial first line of defense in determining its cause.

“Any new symptom is worth an evaluation,” says Audrey Chun, MD, assistant professor of geriatrics and adult development and medical director of the Coffey Geriatrics Practice at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Some symptoms may be part of normal aging, but they can also be warning signs of more serious illness and should not be ignored.”

Although you should first run most symptoms by your general practitioner, more severe warning signs such as new shortness of breath, sudden weakness or slurred speech, chest pain, and heart palpitations require immediate attention, Dr. Chun says. Here are nine warning signs that you need to take seriously, and what you should do if you experience them:

  1. Shortness of breath.

    Call 9-1-1 if your breathing suddenly becomes rapid or uncomfortable, or you have the sensation that you aren’t getting enough air. Feeling short of breath after exercise or while sitting could be due to exertion or anxiety, but if you experience sudden-onset shortness of breath, it could be a heart attack, pulmonary embolus (a potentially life-threatening blood clot in the lungs), or heart failure, all of which require immediate attention.

     
  2. Chest pain or pressure.

    Call 9-1-1. Although chest discomfort could be something as benign as indigestion or gas, it is the most common sign of a heart attack and needs to be evaluated right away, because treatment is time-sensitive. The doctor can determine the source of your chest pain with a physical exam and an electrocardiogram (EKG).

     
  3. Heart palpitations.

    Call 9-1-1 or your doctor if your heart is racing and you haven’t been exerting yourself, advises Dr. Chun. Though it could just be anxiety, palpitations also could indicate a heart attack or arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm).

     
  4. Dizziness.

    Make an appointment with your doctor for a diagnosis. Feeling dizzy when you get out of bed in the morning is called orthostatic hypotension. It’s caused by a drop in blood pressure, which can be due to conditions such as dehydration, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, or medications, including diuretics and blood pressure medicines. Another possibility is benign positional vertigo, which is caused by a disturbance within the balance organs of the inner ear.

     
  5. Urinary or stool changes.

    Call your doctor. Urinary incontinence (leaking urine) is not a part of the normal aging process. It could signal a problem with your prostate, a urinary tract infection, nerve compression, or diabetes. Changes to the color and/or consistency of your stool may be caused by an endocrine problem, a reaction to your medication, or possibly a malignancy.

     
  6. Sudden weakness or slurred speech.

    Call 9-1-1 right away. These are signs of an acute stroke. “Time is of the essence in stroke evaluation,” Dr. Chun says.

     
  7. Numbness.

    Call your doctor as soon as possible. Sometimes, sudden numbness of the face, arms, or legs could be a stroke. Or, a recurring tingling feeling anywhere in your body could be the result of nerve compression, hyperventilation, or neuropathy (a nerve disorder).

     
  8. Unintentional weight loss or gain.

    See your doctor. If you haven’t been eating any differently, a shift in weight could be due to an endocrine abnormality, such as a thyroid disorder or diabetes. Other possibilities are depression or a malignancy.

     
  9. Severe headache.

    Call 9-1-1 if the headache is sudden and severe, lasting, or throbbing. In the worst-case scenarios, a severe headache could be caused by bleeding in the brain or a brain tumor.