BUCKINGHAM TOWNSHIP, Pa., -- After she broke her neck in a car accident at age 28, Renee Tucker's doctors told her that her newly repaired spine would never be as strong as it was before. Another accident could paralyze her.
She's not allowed to run or ride on roller coasters, but the Buckingham Township mother of two has mostly been able to lead a normal life. Now that she's 51, though, she's worrying more about her health. She often feels some dizziness and pain when she stands up, symptoms her doctors have not been able to explain. Any ache in her neck makes her anxious. She's much more afraid of falling than she used to be.
She's seen that some people her age, even those who've taken good care of themselves, have had major health problems.
"I just have this kind of sense of impending doom, that it's going to get worse and not be manageable," she said of her health. "As I get older, I feel weaker and weaker."
While plenty of people ignore their health all their lives, Tucker's worries about her increasing vulnerability are common in later life. Doctors and mental health experts said the 50s, 60s and up can be when symptoms provoke more anxiety than they once did.
This is when many first experience serious illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Even if they don't have a chronic illness, people are more aware of their mortality. Chest discomfort we could attribute in our youth to sore muscles can seem much more ominous. Stomach distress might be cancer. A headache could be a stroke. Every forgotten name might mean Alzheimer's disease.
It's hard to avoid the message that the risk of almost everything bad, including death, goes up with age. That's why, age mostly determines screening for breast, prostate and colon cancer. It's why doctors start paying closer attention to your heart.
Barbara Grabias experienced the newly heightened anxiety recently when she felt chest pressure. She worried that something was wrong with her heart. She went to the doctor and learned she had acid reflux, a condition easily remedied by over-the-counter medicine.
Older people "are more conscious of little pings and pangs in their body," said Grabias, 77, who lives near Washington Square. "It's probably when I got to be 70 is when I started to think more of the preciousness of health."
What first triggered it for Barry Jacobs, 61, was nearing the age at which his father died of cancer: 52. A psychologist who works as a consultant at the Health Management Associates Philadelphia office, Jacobs was especially anxious until he made it to 53. He said age changes the way people feel about their bodies. Most can't run as fast or lift as much weight. They have more aches and pains. "We don't trust our bodies as much after a while," he said.