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Why talk about the Aging Process? Isn't that just depressing?
There is one aspect of life we usually don't like talking about: aging. Yet all of us go through this process and it is often helpful to be aware of the changes that do occur. In essence, then, knowledge is power. Knowing about these things will prepare you for when they happen to you. If we educate ourselves to these changes as we age, we can do more to improve the quality of our lives throughout all of life's stages, but especially in our senior years.
Here, then, are some of the changes that occur (listed in alphabetical order). 2 Each section is followed by specific activities or behaviours that might assist you in coping with the inevitable changes that will occur.
The Heart, Blood Production, and the Blood Vessels
A normal older heart functions well, but when an older heart has to work hard and pump more blood — for example, during exercise or an illness — it will work harder than a young heart. An older heart cannot speed up as quickly, pump as fast, or use as much blood as a younger heart.
As we age, active bone marrow decreases. Since bone marrow helps to produce blood cells, when bone marrow decreases, so too do blood cells. Bone marrow can usually produce enough blood cells for life, but problems may occur when the need for blood cells are higher than usual — in cases of anemia, for instance, or infection. In such cases, bone marrow is less able to increase its production of blood cells in response to the body's needs.
Some changes that occur are:
- The heart and blood vessels become stiffer;
- The heart fills with blood more slowly;
- Stiffer arteries are less able to expand when more blood is pumped through them; and,
- Blood pressure tends to increase.
According to dozens of studies, regular physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some forms of cancer, and depression. Exercise may even help one to stay mentally sharp. Exercise should be in at least ten-minute spurts and add up to about 2.5-3 hours of moderate exercise per week.
Restrict alcohol use. Heart disease is less common in moderate drinkers than in non-drinkers. Don't allow that information to convince you that you can drink all that you want — that's why the word "moderate" is used. The American Heart Association recommends that — if you drink alcohol — the limit should be one drink a day for women and no more than two for men. If, however, you do not drink, it is not wise to start drinking simply because you think that it will keep your heart healthy. There are many other ways of protecting your heart through diet and exercise.
Body Fat and Muscles
As we age, we often gain fat and lose muscle.
By the age of 75, the percentage of body fat typically doubles from the time of our youth — and where it is located also changes. Too much body fat can increase the risk of health problems, such as diabetes.
At about age 30, muscle mass and muscle strength will decrease — usually by not more than about 10% to 15%; however, most of us retain enough muscle mass and strength to carry out normal, daily tasks. This muscle loss is caused by decreasing hormone levels and loss of muscle fibre.
Older people can and do remain athletes in their senior years. But, no matter how fit you are, everyone will eventually notice some decline.
There is much research to indicate that resistance training can strengthen muscles and partially overcome or significantly delay loss of muscle mass and strength.
Cardiovascular exercise may help reduce fat, although belly fat is the most stubborn to lose. Exercise alone will not solve your weight concerns, but it will help if combined with the right diet.
Stay within an appropriate body weight for you, if possible. Less weight can protect against diabetes, heart disease, and other life-shortening conditions. Belly fat appears to be particularly harmful, but losing it is a challenge.
Bones and Joints
Bones are strong because they contain calcium as well as Vitamin D — they work together — but, as we age, the amount of calcium decreases because the body absorbs less calcium from foods. Loss of bone density speeds up in women after menopause. As we age, our bones lose density and, as a result, they are weaker and more likely to break.
Certain bones are weakened more than others. Those most affected include:
- the end of the thighbone (femur) at the hip;
- the ends of the arm bones (radius and ulna) at the wrist; and,
- the bones of the spine (vertebrae).
Some other changes which affect the bones are:
The vertebrae in the spine become less dense which makes you shorter. Between ages 30 and 70, men can lose an inch and women can lose about two inches. Losing inches too quickly can be a warning sign — you may be at greater risk for hip and spine fractures.
As a we move our body and joints, year in and year out, cartilage gets thinner and joints become stiffer since they cannot slide as easily over themselves. This damage usually leads to osteoarthritis — one of the most common disorders of later life.
Ligaments and tendons tend to become less elastic and tear more easily. They also heal more slowly.
As with body fat and muscles, there is a strong body of evidential research that suggests that resistance training can strengthen bones and therefore partially overcome or significantly reduce bone loss.
Most people do not have enough calcium and Vitamin D to keep their bones strong, especially in the later years. There are medications and supplements which may help, so see your doctor to discuss those possibilities.
Osteoporosis is known as the silent disease. Many people do not realize they have it until they break a bone. Between the ages of 40 and 60, it is recommended that you get a bone scan to determine the baseline of your bone health. At the very least, you should discuss it with your doctor.
Brain and Nervous System
The brain, which reaches its maximum size in the early 20's, does shrink slowly over time, and blood flow and nerve cells in the brain also typically decrease.
Other changes to the brain and nervous system are:
- After age 60, the number of cells in the spinal cord begins to decrease.
- After age 70, some mental functions — such as vocabulary, short-term memory, the ability to learn new material or recall words — may be reduced.
- Chemical substances involved in sending messages in the brain mostly decrease.
- Receptors for nerve cells may be lost.
- Nerves may conduct signals more slowly, but this is often not noticeable.
- Nerves may repair themselves more slowly and incompletely, causing sensation and strength to be decreased.
There has been a lot of research in this area. As a result, there are many suggestions for keeping your brain active: brain-teasers, crossword puzzles, learning a new language, continuing to study and read.
Cardiovascular exercise can also help, by pumping more blood through the brain and by using your brain to learn and follow the steps in a cardio section of a fitness class. See also: Exercise and Our Brain.
Finding hobbies and activities that have meaning for you may contribute to a long life.
Breathing and the Lungs
Muscles such as the diaphragm tend to weaken with age.
The number of air sacs (alveoli) and capillaries in the lungs decreases. Thus, slightly less oxygen is absorbed from air that is breathed in.
The lungs become less elastic. In people who do not smoke or have a lung disorder, these changes do not affect ordinary daily activities, but they may make exercising more difficult.
The lungs become less able to fight infection, partly because the cells that help to clean out the airways are less able to do so.
Cough, which also helps clear the lungs, tends to be weaker.
Stop smoking seems almost like a cliche. But, if you can find a way to stop, you will save your lungs from further damage. Better yet, never start.
Cardiovascular exercise will also keep your lungs healthier.
The cell — there are about 100 trillion of them in our body — is the basic structural, functional, and biological unit of all known living organisms. Cells are the smallest unit of life that can copy itself; they are often called the "building blocks of life".
As we age, our cells do not function as well as they did in our youth. But old cells must die — it's a normal part of their function — to make room for new cells.
Reasons why cells die:
- To make room for new cells.
- To avoid over-crowding.
- To divide and make new cells (cells can divide only a limited number of times; this is programmed by genes).
- When it can no longer divide.
- Because it has been damaged by harmful substances, sunlight, chemotherapy drugs, or even by-products of their own normal activities.
There is no magic bullet to slow down the process of our cells dividing and dying. However, a generally healthy lifestyle will clearly make those years go by with less discomfort and disease.
The good news for the digestive system is that it is less affected by aging than most other parts of the body. Some of the few changes are:
- In general, food moves more slowly throughout the system as we age: in particular, the esophagus, the stomach, and the large intestine.
- The digestive tract may produce less lactase; for some, this means that the digestion of milk and milk products becomes much more difficult.
- The liver tends to become smaller because the number of cells decreases. Less blood flows through it, and liver enzymes that help the body process drugs and other substances work less efficiently.
Eat a healthy diet. Avoid foods that you don't seem to digest well. If you have lactose intolerance, avoid milk and milk products. Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly.
Ears and Eyes
Inside your ear are hair cells that send sound waves to the brain. These hair cells become less sensitive as we age and some sounds become more difficult to hear — higher-pitched voices, for instance. Some consonant sounds — such as "P" and "T" — may be more difficult to distinguish. This condition is known as presbycusis. Heredity, loud noises, illness, or even ear wax can cause this condition.
However, although some changes occur due to aging, exposure to loud noises over long periods of time can permanently damage hearing. Unfortunately, most changes in hearing are probably due as much to noise exposure as to aging.
If you feel that you may be having more trouble hearing correctly, have your hearing tested.
A change in vision is often the first undeniable sign of aging. Almost all adults get a vision problem called presbyopia, which means you have trouble seeing close up. It often starts in your early 40s.
Specks, called floaters, are bits of normal fluid in the eye that have solidified. These appear and disappear, beginning in middle age, and there is no way to change them.
Changes in the lenses of the eye can cause or contribute to the following:
- The pupil of the eye reacts more slowly to changes in light.
- Shades and tones become more difficult to differentiate.
- Judging distances becomes more difficult.
- Dry eye is more common as the number of cells that produce fluids to lubricate the eyes decreases.
- Tear production may decrease.
Whether you have worn glasses all of your life, or begin to notice a change in your 40's, you should have your eyes regularly checked — not only just for distance, but because other eye conditions can develop later in life, such as macular degeneration disease and cataracts.
Hormones produced by the endocrine glands decrease, but for most, this is not noticeable. However, some changes may increase the risk of health problems. For example, the changes in insulin increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Daily exercise and a healthy diet, both of which can enhance insulin's action, become more important as people age in order to keep the endocrine system functioning properly. See also: The Endocrine System: How it Works.
Most bodily functions peak shortly before age 30 and then begin a gradual but continuous decline. However, even with this decline, most functions remain adequate because most organs start with considerably more functional capacity than the body needs.
How well organs function depends on how well the cells within them function. As you might expect, older cells function less well. Also, in some organs (particularly the testes, ovaries, liver, and kidneys), cells die and are not replaced. It's important to realize, as well, that if one organ doesn't function well, it may affect another organ.
The good news is that not all organs lose a large number of cells — the brain being one example. Substantial losses occur mainly in people who have had a stroke or who have a disorder, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
The decline in the function of various organs means that older people are less able to handle stress — that includes strenuous physical activity, extreme temperature changes, and various disorders. The organs most affected by stress are the heart and blood vessels, the urinary organs, and the brain.
Changes in the urinary tract may make controlling urination more difficult. In women, the urethra shortens and its lining becomes thinner. In men, the prostate gland tends to enlarge, sometimes enlarging enough to interfere with the passage of urine and to prevent the bladder from emptying completely.
Be pro-active with your health. This means you should exercise and eat a healthy diet. See your doctor when you have symptoms.
Mouth and Nose
The tongue identifies five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory (known as umami). The sense of smell is needed to distinguish more subtle and complex flavors.
Beginning in your 50's, the ability to taste and smell gradually diminishes and taste buds on the tongue decrease in sensitivity. The lining of the nose becomes thinner and drier and the nerve endings in the nose deteriorate. Because of these changes, many foods tend to taste bitter, and foods with subtle smells may taste bland.
The mouth tends to feel dry more often, partly because less saliva is produced. Dry mouth further reduces the ability to taste food.
Visits to the dentist may increase as the the gums recede slightly, exposing food particles and bacteria to them. Tooth enamel tends to wear away. These changes, as well as a dry mouth, make the teeth more susceptible to decay and cavities.
Maintain good dental hygiene and visit your dentist at least once a year for a check-up.
Friends will help you live longer, especially if you choose the right ones. Your friends’ habits rub off on you, so look for companions with healthy lifestyles.
Skin begins to age when you hit your 20s. Your body doesn’t make as much collagen and elastin — these are proteins that help your skin stay plump and firm.
Here are some of the things that happen to the skin, especially if you have been a smoker or spent lots of time in the sun:
- It becomes thinner.
- It doesn't spring back into place after a smile, frown, or squint.
- It is less elastic.
- It tears more easily.
- The fat layer under the skin becomes thinner.
- The number of nerve endings decreases.
- There is less sensitivity to pain, temperature, and pressure.
- The number of sweat glands and blood vessels decreases.
- Blood flow in the deep layers of the skin decreases.
- The number of pigment-producing cells decreases.
- Large, brown spots (known as age spots) develop on skin that has been exposed to sunlight, perhaps because the skin is less able to remove waste products.
- The skin is less able to form vitamin D when it is exposed to sunlight. Thus, the risk of vitamin D deficiency increases.
Stop smoking! This is so obvious that nothing more needs to be said.
See your doctor if you notice any changes in your skin. Be cautious of claims by cosmetic companies of what creams and lotions are capable of doing.
Although we need just as much sleep as an older adult than when we were a child, many seniors take longer to fall asleep, spend more time in lighter stages of sleep, and wake up more often in the night. Seniors tend to go to bed earlier than when they were younger — but they also tend to get up earlier.
An 80-year study found one of the best predictors of a long life is a conscientious personality. Researchers measured attributes like attention to detail and persistence. They found that conscientious people do more things to protect their health and make choices that lead to stronger relationships and better careers.
A siesta is standard in many parts of the world, and now there's scientific evidence that napping may help you live longer. A recent study with 24,000 participants suggests that regular nappers are 37% less likely to die from heart disease than occasional nappers. Researchers think naps might help the heart by keeping stress hormones down.
Getting enough good quality sleep can lower the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and mood disorders. Sufficient sleep will also help you recover from illness faster. Burning the midnight oil, on the other hand, carries serious health risks. Sleeping less than 5 hours per night boosts the risk of premature death, so make sleep a priority.
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I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.