Medical questions & health advice by board certified doctors
"Why do people seem to shrink with age?"
As a middle-aged man, I was wondering why so many people seem to lose several inches when they are nearing old age. I am currently just over six-feet tall and work hard to make sure that my posture is picture perfect. That being said, I can feel my back tending to hunch, and the problem seems to get worse when I am sitting at my computer for long periods of time. I was talking with my friend about the problem, and she said that gravity actually causes my back to bend towards the ground, and this can make a normal person look like a hunch back. Because I like exercising, I thought that there may be some types of activities that I could perform to improve my posture and ensure that I maintain my full height for as long as possible.
That is an interesting question to discuss with your primary care physician. Believe it or not, we start shrinking around age 30, and between the ages of 30 and 70, men tend to lose about 1 inch of height and women tend to lose around 2 inches. The medical community believes that people shrink for several reasons. Lets start with anatomy. The parts of our body involved in our stature are bones, cartilage, and muscle. As we age, all of these things undergo changes. As people age, they lose bone mass. This is because bone is a more active tissue than most people think, constantly breaking down old bone and replacing it with new bone throughout our lives. With age, the rate of absorption begins to outpace the rate of new bone formation, and bones tend to get more weak and spongy. This tends to be more pronounced in women because it is accelerated by the lack of estrogen after menopause. As bones become more spongy, they tend to compress causing people to lose height. As the years go by, cartilage gets worn away and compressed. This process occurs in the disks of the back and causes older people to lose a bit of height. Finally, muscles help maintain posture, and as we age, muscle is lost and replaced with fat, a condition called sarcopenia. This leads to poor posture, giving the illusion that even more height has been lost. But don't fear, there are several habits that can help you maintain as much height as possible. These habits include maintaining proper posture, regular physical activity, not smoking, not drinking alcohol or caffeine excessively, avoiding extreme dieting, never taking steroids and maintaining good nutrition. One of the most important components of staying healthy as you age is visiting a primary care physician regularly. Your doctor can keep track of your height accurately to make sure you are not losing height too rapidly, which is a sign of substantial bone loss called osteoporosis, and can order diagnostic tests and treatment if needed.
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