What causes old age in humans

Many diseases become common with age

Older people often suffer from several diseases at the same time. Often these are accompanied by physical or mental limitations. The combination of both can in turn result in frailty and thus lower resilience and an increased risk of illness.

Drug therapy poses a further problem of multimorbidity. Because older people often take many different medicines. However, this also increases the number of undesirable side effects. The old sentence: "Less is more."

Medicines can alleviate everyday suffering, especially in old age and with chronic illnesses. But not all active ingredients are suitable for the elderly. Some drugs can cause special problems in old age and should therefore not be used if possible. Which exactly these are is shown in the PRISCUS list.

Between dementia and depression

Some neurological and psychiatric disorders are more common with age. It is estimated that in Germany alone one million elderly people live with dementia (German Society for Neurology). About 150,000 people suffer from Parkinson's disease (German Parkinson Association).

Depression is also far more common in older people than in young people. In Germany, if the definition is narrow, it is estimated that every tenth person is depressed, and if the definition is broader, every fourth person aged 70 or over is depressed. Women are affected twice as often as men (Berlin age study). Depression in old age can have biological roots. But it is also to be seen in the context of the social isolation that many people suffer from in old age.

Musculoskeletal disorders

In osteoarthritis, the articular cartilage changes and, as a result, the adjacent bones as well. Around every fourth adult in Germany has osteoarthritis of at least one joint - and half of people over the age of 60 (Robert Koch Institute, Foundation Orthopedic University Hospital Heidelberg). The disease can affect almost all joints, but mostly occurs on the hip, knee, shoulder or spine.

Other musculoskeletal disorders that are more common in old age than in younger years are rheumatic joint and muscle diseases and osteoporosis. At least one in 50 women over the age of 50 suffers a broken bone every year due to osteoporosis (umbrella organization for osteology). Bone fractures as a result of osteoporosis can be prevented if people at increased risk are identified early and treated appropriately.

The risk of falling for older people can be reduced significantly within one year through targeted programs - such as the Bavarian Fall Prevention Program. This is borne out by the results of a study funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In their follow-up project, the researchers are investigating whether the risk of falling will remain permanently reduced after participation has ended and how the prevention program can be integrated into everyday life in Bavarian nursing homes "Long-term evaluation of the Bavarian fall prevention program in nursing homes (LongFall)".

Cardiovascular diseases

Cardiovascular diseases also occur not only - but predominantly - in older people. These include in particular:

  • coronary heart disease (a "calcification" of the coronary arteries),
  • cerebrovascular disease (a disease of the blood vessels in the brain)
  • and peripheral arterial disease (a narrowing of the arteries that supply the legs).

Cardiovascular diseases cause symptoms that can severely reduce the quality of life. For example, those affected cannot climb stairs without experiencing chest pain. Or they have to interrupt short walks several times because their legs hurt.

The consequences of cardiovascular diseases can also be far more dangerous: four out of ten people in Germany die of cardiovascular diseases (Federal Statistical Office). Heart attacks and strokes in particular cause many deaths each year. Fortunately, these can be at least partially prevented with the appropriate measures.

Cancer: Also a disease of old age

Is cancer a disease of old age? Many are not even aware of this. But cancer usually arises as a result of an accumulation of genetic changes. And these develop over years and decades.

Statistically, this can be clearly shown: In people over 60 years of age, the risk of developing one of the ten most common forms of cancer within five years is over 20 percent (Robert Koch Institute). Around 400,000 people develop cancer every year in Germany. About half of them are over 65 years old.

German Centers for Health Research (DZG)

Fighting common diseases better together, that is the goal of the DZG. For this purpose, various research locations from all over Germany have come together. Together, the scientists want to ensure that the research results arrive quickly at the care facility in order to help people. Cardiovascular diseases, cancer and infections are three of the six major subject areas on which research is carried out in the DZG. These are funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the participating countries.


The immune system is the human body's main weapon against pathogens. But the immune system is also subject to an aging process. This, along with other causes, makes people more susceptible to infections as they get older.

Vaccination can protect the elderly from at least the two most dangerous infections - the flu and pneumonia. The latter is mostly caused by certain bacteria, the pneumococci. The Standing Vaccination Commission (STIKO) of the Robert Koch Institute therefore recommends an annual vaccination against seasonal flu and at least one vaccination against pneumococci, the causative agent of pneumonia, for all people over the age of sixty.

Results from health research: