June 01, 2017

Headaches as you age

Finding relief


You really wanted to attend your granddaughter's school play, but with your splitting headache you knew you wouldn't enjoy the event. You thought your headaches would go away now that you're retired and have less on your mind, but they still occur regularly.

Headaches are less common with age. Nonetheless, they're still a problem among older adults — between 15 and 20 percent of adults older than 60 have more than two headaches a month. Furthermore, with age comes a new concern — headaches due to an underlying cause are more common.

Some first-time headaches signal something serious, requiring immediate attention. In addition, older adults tend to take more medications in general, so medications for chronic headache pain must be chosen carefully. A number of headache drugs may conflict with drugs taken for other conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. As a result, the approach to headache pain in older adults is a little different from the usual care.

Common headache types

The most common headache types are tension, migraine and cluster headaches. Most often, the headaches represent a continuation of an existing condition. However, in some cases, primary headaches — headaches with no underlying cause — can occur for the first time after age 50.

In older adults, new headaches raise suspicion that a headache may be a symptom of something else. For example, conditions that reduce oxygen to the brain, such as sleep apnea or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, can lead to a headache. Eye problems, such as glaucoma, also can cause headaches, typically around or behind an eye.

Depending on your medical history and...