If you spent any time at all with an assortment of media, you can be forgiven for believing that getting old is a disease. (Some scientists and others believe that’s all it is and are working hard, spending billions of dollars, to “cure” aging. But that’s a topic for another time.)
All day every day we are bombarded with ads for pills and potions and treatments for a phenomenal number of ailments that, from the appearance of actors involved, afflict only old people.
There is so much of it, you have wonder if there is any such thing as normal aging. Or, to put it another way, what should we expect, barring big-time diseases, from our bodies and well-being as we age into the upper decades of life?
Aging happens as a result of varying combinations of genes, health and dumb luck and in time, certain things will happen no matter how heathily you have lived. In addition, as we often mention here, people age at different rates and in different ways so what happens to one person at 50 may not affect another until age 70. Or, maybe, not at all.
Working to satisfy my curiosity about normal aging didn’t take long – there’s not much but what there is, is in agreement. Here is an overview of some of the things I’ve tracked down to expect as we get into our fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond.
VISION: By age 40 almost everyone needs reading glasses. By 60, many have cataracts. It is normal for clarity and peripheral vision to decline along with sensitivity to glare and decreased ability to judge distance.
HEARING: One-third of people 60 and older will suffer some amount of hearing loss. Acuity declines, particularly sounds in the high registers. It commonly becomes difficult to hear close-up sounds when there is ambient noise such as conversation at the table in a loud restaurant.
As one source advises, if you are not hearing as well as you did years ago, you’re probably okay. If your hearing is worse than a week ago, see your doctor.
TEETH AND TASTE: The number of taste buds declines so flavors are not as strong as in the past. The amount of saliva declines resulting in vulnerability to tooth decay and infection along with receding gums.
TOUCH AND SMELL: The sense of smell and touch both decline. Fingerprints flatten out and sometimes cannot be read.
SKIN: Nails grow more slowly. Skin is drier because less oil is produced so we get lines and wrinkles and sags. Cuts and abrasions heal more slowly.
CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM: The heart may enlarge, the walls become thicker and arteries stiffen. Your heart rate slows. With age, we become more vulnerable to hypertension which affects 50 percent of people 60 and older – hypertension defined as blood pressure reading of 140/90 or higher.
LUNGS: Elasticity of lungs begins to decline some time in our 20s and ribcage muscles shrink progressively over time. Overall breathing capacity diminishes with each decade.
STAMINA AND STRENGTH: Changes in the heart and lungs along with other factors, affect stamina and strength. Although exercise, stretching and weight training can help, you will lose muscle mass. Walking regularly can help keep up stamina.
BONES AND JOINTS: Most of us are aware that we can become shorter as we age because the discs between our vertebrae become thinner. Recently, a friend told me she is two inches shorter than she used to be.
All during adulthood, our bones become become less dense and therefore lose strength. Risk of osteoporosis (loss of bone density) increases in all elders but especially women.
According to a page at WebMD, most people reach their peak functioning at about age 30. Continuing,
‘We shouldn’t think of aging as a failure of our bodily systems,’ says Kenneth Minaker, MD, chief of geriatric medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“’Aging is a life-saving process,’ he says. ‘It is a process of lifelong adaptation to prevent us from developing cancers that would kill us.’”
Obviously, that doesn’t always work out well. Tomorrow in Part Two of normal aging, I’ll continue with what else to expect as the years roll on.
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