Like all other living beings, we grow, we age and we die. Most of us have had the opportunity to see our grandparents grow old. We have seen them become weak, seen their skin loosening up, seen their hair become grey. They start walking a little slower, have frequent health problems, they prefer resting more than actively working, they forget things and become tired easily. They become dependent on their other healthy family members. Why can’t we stay healthy and fit forever? Well, to an extent we can but everything has an expiry date. Let us understand what happens to our bodies as we age. But first of all, what is old age? The UN says 65+ but the WHO says 55+. You can choose yours!
As we age, the cardiovascular system finds it harder to pump blood to all the organs. This happens because of constantly serving your body non-stop for years and years, the blood vessel walls have become stiff. This increases the resistance during pumping of blood and also affects the volume of the blood pumped. Because of this change, your heart muscles have to work harder than before to adjust to the increased workload. So, with this kind of heart, when you are doing something tedious requiring high amounts of energy, your heart rate will find it very difficult to go up increasing the risk of high pressure on the heart (hypertension). This may also cause other cardiovascular problems like hypertrophy of the cardiac muscle (thickening of the muscle), coronary artery diseases as well as cardiac failure.
The bones shrink in size and density making them weaker. This happens because the main component of your bones is calcium and the bones can only store it until a certain age. I would say 20-25 years of age. After that your bones stop storing calcium and utilise the stored amount for the rest of your life. Now, obviously after 40-50 years, the calcium sores will deplete and the bones will become weak. The bone building cells called the osteoblasts (osteo- bone, blasts- type of building cells) decrease in number. This increases their chances of breaking and causing fractures.
The muscles lose their density as well. They become weak, lose their endurance and flexibility. In biological terms, this is called sarcopenia. The word “sarco” comes from the functional unit of the muscles known as the sarcomere and the word “penia” means decrease. This happens physiologically as a part of the process called atrophy (reduce in size). Atrophy occurs in almost each and every tissue in the body as the part of aging. When the tissues are not used much, they reduce in size. This affects the body’s movement and balance.
The Digestive System
Constipation and flatulence are the most common things you observe in older people. This happens because of changes in the muscles of the intestines. The food moves slower in the intestines causing the intestine to absorb more water from the faecal material. Flatulence may also occur due to the faeces staying long in the intestines for the bacteria to produce more gas while digesting it. Constant constipation can also give rise to diverticulitis (diverticula- small pouches in the intestines; itis- inflammation) which means inflammation of small pouches in the intestine causing these parts of your intestine to bulge out leading to serious cramps and pain in the abdominal area.
Similar changes happen to the urinary bladder causing the bladder to lose its elasticity. You lose control of your bladder which also makes it difficult for you to completely empty your bladder. Other factors that affect this are medications, alcohol and caffeine.
The Memory and Thinking
Just like your other tissues, your brain also undergoes atrophy as you age and this affects various parts of your brain making you think slower or forget names and things. The main hormones responsible for and associated with cognitive function are dopamine and serotonin. With increasing age, the levels of these hormones drop due to their pathways being affected by the changes in the brain. There is also production of other neurotransmitters which release free radicals damaging the brain further.
Your skin loosens up because of decrease in the subcutaneous (fat) tissue beneath it. It becomes thin and less elastic. The loss of elasticity can be contributed to the substances called elastin and collagen. It also becomes a little more transparent due to loss of the surface layer of the skin called the epidermis. You will also notice more wrinkles, fine lines, skin tags and dark spots due to the skin becoming fragile.
All of this is a part of the Normal aging process. While you are young, you can do a couple of things to reduce the impact of aging.
- Do not Smoke
- Schedule regular checkups
- Be social
- Be mentally active
- Eat healthy
- Include physical exercise in your routine
- Go to toilet regularly
- Avoid acidic foods and alcohol
- Get adequate amounts of vitamin D and calcium
- Get enough sleep
- Manage stress
Some wise words: If you don’t use it, you will lose it.