6 tips for managing headaches in older adults

Older adults have fewer headaches than younger adults – but they are still common in older adults. Headaches affect 64% of women and 53% of men between 55 and 74, and 55% of women and 22% of men 75 and older, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Frequent headaches, which can be painful, disabling and impair quality of life, are reported by 11% of women and 5% of men over 65, says University of Toronto’s Department of Family and Community Medicine.

A key difference in headaches affecting seniors is that causes are more often secondary than for younger adults. While two-thirds of headaches in older adults result from primary causes like tension-type, migraine and cluster headaches, one-third result from secondary causes such as medication overuse, head trauma or vascular disease, according to University of Toronto. For younger adults, only 10% have secondary causes.

Assess possible causes

Headaches are more challenging to diagnose in older adults. If headaches occur often or develop suddenly, talk with your doctor or a specialist to assess possible causes and the most appropriate ways to prevent or treat them.

It is especially important for older adults, who use more than one-third of all prescription medications, to consider the possibility of medication-overuse or rebound headaches, according to Advanced Studies in Medicine. Pain relievers offer relief for occasional headaches, but if you take them more than a few days a week, they may trigger rebound headaches, says Mayo Clinic.

Older adults are more susceptible to medication side effects. So, tapering and ultimately discontinuing pain and other medications that aren’t necessary may help prevent or ease headaches, says Advanced Studies in Medicine.

Lifestyle changes can ease headaches

If you experience headaches and secondary causes have been ruled out, certain lifestyle changes can make a difference:

1. Get enough sleep. This can help prevent headaches from developing or escalating, says B.C.’s Fraser Health.

2. Don’t skip meals. Start with a healthy breakfast, eat lunch and dinner, and drink enough water.

3. Be physically active. Exercise causes your body to release chemicals that block pain signals to your brain.

4. Lower stress. Emotional stress increases tension in your head, neck and muscles. Stay positive and relax. Try yoga, meditation, listen to music, read, or take a hot bath.

5. Avoid headache triggers. Reduce exposure to possible triggers like bright lights, loud noises, or too much caffeine or alcohol.

6. Try alternative therapies. There is evidence biofeedback and acupuncture help some people control headaches and cope with pain.