How to Prevent Misdiagnosis with a Holistic Health Approach

Common health issues and illnesses that are often misdiagnosed in aging adults

How to Prevent Mis-diagnosis with a Holistic Health Approach

When you think about your aging parent’s health, you might focus on their physical health. But experts say overall wellness requires a three-pronged approach.

The Mind-Body-Spirit Connection

Since 1946, the World Health Organization has defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This holistic approach to health focuses on wellness and prevention, rather than just treating diseases.

For example, stress is a psychological response in the mind. But stress can cause problems for the body, such as headaches, insomnia, and weight gain. Another example: Having close friendships can not only boost your mental health, but these social connections can also help lower your blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve your chances of surviving cancer.

If you think of aromatherapy, acupuncture, or other Eastern-inspired health trends when you hear about “holistic health,” you’re partially right. Holistic health care does incorporate complementary medicine treatments that are scientifically proven to work. But holistic care is about more than integrating Eastern and Western medicine. It offers a more comprehensive and personalized way of thinking about wellness, especially for seniors.

How Holistic Health Helps Reduce Misdiagnosis

As your parents age, their health becomes more complex. When they experience a change to their health or well-being, it can be difficult to distinguish between certain conditions.

For instance, did you know that over 50 conditions can cause or mimic the symptoms of dementia? You might think that forgetfulness is the start of memory loss, but it could be due to medication side effects, depression, or even a urinary tract infection. When you and your parent’s health care providers take a holistic view of the problem, you get more accurate and precise information about your parent’s wellness and you help reduce misdiagnosis and treatment.

Here is a look at some common issues and illnesses that are often misdiagnosed or overlooked in seniors and how taking a holistic approach to health can help bring all the pieces of the mind-body-spirit puzzle together.

Is Dad Losing Weight? It Might Be Depression

Your dad is in good health and is managing life fine at home alone. But over the past few months, he seems to have lost some weight. When you ask him about it, he says he just doesn’t have much of an appetite. But he used to delight in new culinary experiences!

Before you order meal replacement drinks or other diet supplements, encourage your father to see his doctor. Change in appetite in older adults, including weight loss, can be a sign of depression. If your dad has recently lost a spouse or other close friends, and especially if he is socially isolated at home, he may be particularly vulnerable to depression.

Is Mom Cranky? She Might Not Be Sleeping Well

Your mom has always been particular. But when you purchased a different brand of shampoo than she normally buys, she wouldn’t stop complaining. And on the drive to her doctor’s appointment last week, she snapped at you for going too fast.

Although your mom might be curt, she might also be having difficulty sleeping at night. Whether it’s the fear of a home intrusion or loneliness when climbing into a bed once shared with the love of their life, living home alone can be tough. An underlying medical or psychiatric condition might also be disrupting her sleep. Getting enough good-quality sleep helps maintain brain health, physical health, and mood.

Is Dad Forgetful? It Might Signal Substance Use

Your dad is a great listener. You have swapped many stories sitting around the dinner table and enjoying a bottle of wine. But there have been a handful of times recently when you tell him something on the phone, and he has no recollection of it the next day. You’re worried: Is it memory loss?

It could be the effects of alcohol. Many elders are very clever about hiding their habits. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 1 in 10 seniors report consuming four to five drinks in about two hours during the past month. Drinking can make older people forgetful and confused, which could be mistaken for signs of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Is Mom Withdrawn? She Might Need More Social Connections

Your mom always used to be the life of the party. But ever since the pandemic, she’s seemed more withdrawn. Although withdrawing from social activities is a sign of memory loss — people with memory loss may have trouble keeping up with a conversation or activity — your mom may simply need more social support.

It’s true that many older adults cut back on activities as they age, but dropping out of everything and showing interest in almost nothing is a red flag. Without a healthy social life, seniors are more prone to chronic illnesses, depression, cognitive decline, and even early death. Having strong social ties — through friends, family, and community groups — feeds the brain as well as the soul.

Is Dad Confused? He Might Be Dehydrated

Your dad is who you normally turn to for advice or a listening ear. But these days, he seems to be misunderstanding everything. Your mind might jump to Alzheimer’s, but first, ask your dad how much water he’s been drinking.

The risk of dehydration is higher among older adults. Your dad might have a reduced sense of thirst, so it’s easy to forget to drink enough. Some medications have a diuretic effect. Or it might be challenging to get up to get a drink when he’s thirsty. When untreated, dehydration can also cause low blood pressure, confusion and disorientation, and fatigue. 

The bottom line? Things aren’t always what they appear. Looking at your parent as a whole person — body, mind, and spirit — can help improve their overall wellness.

For a simple way to see where your loved one can enhance their wellness, take our Wellness Quiz for Older Adults. This simple, 15-question self-assessment can help you start to identify the areas of wellness where your loved one is thriving as well as those areas that may need greater attention.

Wellness Quiz