Many use the terminologies tired vs fatigue interchangeably, but do they mean the same thing? Increasingly more so, as a senior, you hear of the terms “being tired”, “fatigued”, “exhausted” or “lethargic”, and you wonder at the distinctions between them and whether there are differences.
As we age, our energy levels and endurance gradually decrease, and it seems that we tire more easily. Are tiredness and fatigue a natural part of aging?
My scientific curiosity led into the research for this article. Many use the words “tired” and “fatigue” even in the same paragraph, and I wondered – “could you be tired and not necessarily fatigued, and vice versa”? I was certainly confused.
If you are one of those seniors – like myself – who frequently say, “I am so fatigued” when what you really mean is that “I am so tired”, this article will help you better understand the differences.
Everyone feels tired sometimes – both young and old. Generally, a good night’s rest should cure this kind of tiredness.
Tiredness can however also be a symptom of many diseases and conditions (Medicinenet 2019). The causes of tiredness range from a lack of sleep, experiencing muscle weakness following excessive work or exercise, to recovery from major medical and surgical problems.
The lack of energy (lethargy) associated with tiredness can sometimes cause difficulty with normal daily activities, leading to problems with attentiveness and concentration.
An interesting study was conducted on reviews of studies indexed in CINAHL®, MEDLINE®, PubMed, Psyc INFO, SPORTDiscus, and CancerLit between 1995-2004. The studies included the bibliographies of indexed articles and five qualitative studies conducted by the author – Karin Olson in 2007. They provided some illuminating insights on the concept of being tired vs being fatigued.
The study concluded that tiredness and exhaustion are conceptually distinct from fatigue. All three concepts are located along a continuum of adaptation in a manner consistent with stress theory.
Tiredness precedes fatigue, which in turn precedes exhaustion. Simply put, fatigue is tiredness that does not go away, while exhaustion is amplified and overwhelming fatigue.
Other interesting studies conducted more recently, examined the next-day effects of alcohol on young and older adults (Tolstrup et al., 2014 and Lydon-Staley et al. 2017).
Younger adults were found to experience greater than usual tiredness after greater than usual alcohol use. This was partially explained by reduction in the duration of their sleep.
In contrast, while older adults generally experienced greater than usual tiredness after less sleep, greater than usual alcohol use did not affect them similarly as it did for younger adults. The path from alcohol to tiredness via sleep duration was not present in the older adult group.
Fatigue, in medical terminology, refers to the state of reduced capacity for work or accomplishment following a period of mental or physical activity. For example, muscles fatigue if they are called upon to repetitively work for an extended period.
Many of the causes of tiredness are also associated with fatigue.
In ordinary terms, fatigue is an extreme and frequently overpowering physical and mental tiredness, that does not improve with rest or sleep in a meaningful way .
It is common for people with arthritis to experience fatigue, and it can make their pain and stiffness in the joints feel more severe (Versus Arthritis 2018)
Fatigue itself is not a disease but an indication that body is not able to run efficiently as it lacks the energy (fuel) to do so – it is lethargic. Energy is manufactured from nutrients (vitamins and minerals) in the foods we eat which combine with oxygen. Deficiencies in nutrients is more pronounced in older adults and this can cause problems.
If you are constantly feeling tired even after a good night’s sleep, you should schedule a visit to your healthcare professional who can provide you with the necessary examinations.
In the United states, 60% of adults have one chronic disease and 40% have at least two chronic diseases. Fatigue is a commonly reported symptom in individuals with chronic illnesses, the prevalence of which ranges between 40-74% (Torossian & Jacelon 2019). Fatigue is a symptom often found among older adults with medical problems (Liao & Ferrall 2015)
People who are fatigued have difficulty concentrating, experience anxiety, have a gradual decrease in stamina, experience difficulty sleeping, and have increased sensitivity to light. They also may also start to avoid social engagements.
Medical problems can include
- Inadequate and erratic sleep patterns including apnea, overactive bladder and enlarged prostrates
- Taking certain medicines, such as antidepressants, antihistamines, blood pressure, nausea, and pain medicines
- Medical treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation
- Recovering from major surgery
- Emotional issues such as anxiety, stress, or depression
- Drinking too much alcohol or too many caffeinated drinks
A never ending or unrelenting exhaustion, on the other hand, lasts longer, is more profound and is not relieved by sleep or rest. It’s a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time and reduces your energy, motivation and concentration. Fatigue at this level impacts your emotional and psychological well-being, too (Mayo Clinic 2020)
People who suffer from exhaustion, report confusion that resembles delirium, emotional numbness, sudden loss of energy, difficulty in staying awake as well as in sleeping and complete social withdrawal (Olson, 2007).
Armed With a Better Understanding….
Now that you better understand the terms tired vs fatigue, you can go ahead and evaluate your current lifestyle habits. Do you experience feelings of tiredness, that just will not go away?
Poor sleep patterns can increase fatigue, so it is important that you get a good nights’ sleep. If you are having problems sleeping, this is an important tell-tale sign for you to schedule a visit with your healthcare professional for a clear diagnosis and treatment before conditions deteriorate.
- Megan Rauscher (2007) Fatigued or just tired? There is a difference https://www.reuters.com/article/us-fatigued-tired-s-idUSCOL75594120070207
- AgeUk (2018) 5 reasons older adults might be feeling more tired https://www.ageukmobility.co.uk/mobility-news/article/5-reasons-older-adults-tired
- Fatigue, Tiredness, and Lethargy: Symptoms & Signs (2019) https://www.medicinenet.com/fatigue_and_tiredness/symptoms.htm
- National Institute on Aging (2017) Fatigue in Older Adults https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/fatigue-older-adults
- Karin Olson (2007) A New Way of Thinking About Fatigue: A Re conceptualization Oncology Nursing Forum, 34(1), 93-99 https://onf.ons.org/onf/34/1/new-way-thinking-about-fatigue-reconceptualization
- U.S. National Library of Medicine (2020) Fatigue https://medlineplus.gov/fatigue.html
- Torossian & Jacelon (2019) Chronic Illnesses and Fatigue in Older Individuals: A Literature Review. Innov Aging. 3(Suppl 1): S319. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6840564/
- Lydon-Staley et al (2017) Reduced Impact of Alcohol Use on Next-day Tiredness in Older Relative to Younger Adults: A Role for Sleep Duration Psychol Aging. 32(7): 642–653.
- Tolstrup et al (2014) Does the severity of hangovers decline with age? Survey of the incidence of hangover in different age groups. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2014 Feb; 38(2):466-70. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24033827/
- Liao S & Ferrall B. A (2015) Fatigue in an Aging population J Am Geriatr Soc 48: 426–430 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2000.tb04702.x
- Mayo Clinic (2020) Fatigue. Definition https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/fatigue/basics/definition/SYM-20050894
- Versus Arthritis (2018) Managing Fatigue https://www.versusarthritis.org/about-arthritis/managing-symptoms/managing-fatigue/