When I’ll get older, losing my hair…
many years from now!
What does it mean to grow older? During childhood, adolescence and young adulthood the typical “ambience” inside the mind is one of immortality and aging means nothing… it is not “your own thing”. Even though it’s a lifelong process it is not until the fourth or fifth decade of life is reached that the reality of growing old finally hits us. It’s often only when starting to notice physical changes that one accepts one is… actually, getting older.
If you’re older than 60, you’ve probably already encountered these realities of aging, but you may also have realized that you have a lot more life left than you’d once thought.
So what exactly is aging, what causes it, how does the body change and how long can we expect to live?
What causes aging? It is not fully understood, as yet. Scientists theorize that aging is probably the result of a combination of factors including genes, environment and lifestyle. The USA National Institute on Aging, groups the most accepted theories of aging into two categories:
“Programmed” theories: These suggest that biological factors or programsin the body cause aging to occur on a set timeline. One suggests that the immune system is responsible as it is programmedto decline, leading to disease and therefore aging and death. Another theory points to the hormones, considering that, throughout life, there are programmed changes in the production of hormones that regulate the aging processes.
“Damage or error” theories: Theories in this group explain aging as a result of environmental factors that gradually damage the body and interfere with its normal function. The wear-and-tear theory suggests that the cells and tissues in the body have essential parts that simply wear out over time. Environmental factors such as sunlight and toxins can trigger wear. Other theories suggest that genetic mutations or impaired protein production will be responsible for damaged cells.
The hope is that, as Scientists progress using these theories to study aging, their research may one day help slow the aging process, extend human life, and keep humankind active and healthy for longer.
How does the body change? Some of the physical effects of aging like wrinkles, grey hair and slower reflexes are obvious, but what else is going on that is not easily seen? As we age, time takes its toll on the organs and systems in the body. How and when this occurs is unique to each human being, not everyone undergoes the same changes. Still, in general, some of the age-related changes that occur include changes in:
Bones: Bones slowly lose mass and minerals and become gradually less dense. This loss of density weakens the bones and makes them more susceptible to fracture.
Brain: The number of neurons (cells) in the brain decreases. However, in some areas, the number of connections between cells increases, perhaps helping to compensate for the cellular decrease and maintain normal brain function.
Cardiovascular system: The size of the heart increases slightly. Blood pressure increases, the maximum heart rate decreases and the heart may take longer to return to its normal resting state after physical activity.
Hearing: Over the years, the normal wear and tear of sounds can damage the cells of the inner ears. The walls of the auditory canals also thin, and the eardrums thicken. There is greater difficulty in hearing higher frequencies.
Kidneys: The size of the kidneys shrinks, and the amount the bladder can hold decreases. The kidneys also become less efficient at removing wastes from the blood.
Muscles: Muscle mass and strength decrease, though increased physical activity can reduce this effect. The amount of water in the tendons and ligaments decreases, increasing stiffness.
Reproductive system: Women produce less oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone as they age. The uterus and the vagina shrink, and there is less vaginal lubrication. Men produce less sperm, and their levels of testosterone decreases.
Skin: Skin thins, and nails grow at about half the pace they once did. Sweat and oil (sebaceous) glands become less active, and the moisture in the skin decreases.
Vision: Eyes are less able to produce tears and the retina thins. In the 40s, focusing on objects that are close-up becomes more difficult due to changes in the eye lenses. Later, the iris stiffens, making the pupils less responsive making it more difficult to adapt to different levels of light.
I just noticed that I have forgotten to talk about “loosing my hair”… as in the old Beatles song. Oh, well… as people age, their rate of hair growth slows and the remaining hairs become shorter and fewer in number. But there are now several solutions for this annoying “small” problem…
The most important question comes now:
How long can we live? One hundred twenty-two years is the longest documented human life span. Though this is rare, the improvements in medicine, science and technology, during the last century, have helped more people to live longer, healthier lives. An example is that in the early 1900s the average life expectancy at birth was only about 50 years and today, it is close to 77. Moreover, the 85-plus group is the fastest-growing demographic segment, although the number of people 100 and older has exploded as well. It is considered that these numbers will grow more than 4 times within the next 30 years.
In the last 10 years, scientists have made great progress in the study of aging and thousands of research projects on how to slow aging are under way throughout the world. Scientists are studying everything from cloning for spare parts to how DNA mutations affect aging and fighting cancer with viruses.
But longer lives also mean that some people may spend more time in an incapacitated state at the end of their lives, in part because the World has done too little to promote healthy aging. Rates of obesity, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and alcohol abuse are still too high. However, researchers say it’s never too late to clean up your act. For example, if you quit smoking, your risk of heart disease begins to fall almost immediately.
Living a healthy lifestyle can improve how you age.
No matter what your age, you can begin preparing now for your later years.
You are the master of your own quality of life.
Clearly, old isn’t what it used to be. And the definition continues to evolve.
Best health wishes,
Consultant in General and Family Medicine
Medical Director – Grupo Hospital Particular do Algarve