Wonder what’s considered a normal part of the aging process? Here’s what to expect as you get older – and what to do about it.
Do you expect to find a few more wrinkles and gray hairs each time you look in the mirror? These are just some of the changes you’re likely to notice as you get older. You’re not necessarily at the mercy of Mother Nature, however. Here’s a list of common aging-related changes and what you can do to promote good health at any age.
Your cardiovascular system
What’s happening? Over time, your heart muscle becomes less efficient – working harder to pump the same amount of blood through your body. In addition, your blood vessels lose some of their elasticity and hardened fatty deposits may form on the inner walls of your arteries (atherosclerosis). These changes make your arteries stiffer, causing your heart to work even harder to pump blood through them. This can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) and other cardiovascular problems.
What you can do about it. To promote heart health, include physical activity in your daily routine. Try walking, swimming or other physical activities. Eat a healthy diet, including plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If you smoke, ask your doctor to help you quit. Your risk of heart disease will begin to fall almost immediately.
Your bones, joints and muscles
What’s happening? With age, bones tend to shrink in size and density – which weakens them and makes them more susceptible to fracture. You might even become a bit shorter. Muscles generally lose strength and flexibility, and you may become less coordinated or have trouble balancing.
What you can do about it. Include plenty of calcium and vitamin D in your diet. Build bone density with weight-bearing activities, such as walking. Consider strength training at least twice a week, too. By stressing your bones, strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. Building muscle also protects your joints from injury and helps you maintain flexibility and balance.
Your digestive system
What’s happening? Constipation is more common in older adults. Many factors can contribute to constipation, including a low-fiber diet, not drinking enough fluids and lack of exercise. Various medications, including diuretics and iron supplements, may contribute to constipation. Certain medical conditions, including diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome, may increase the risk of constipation as well.
What you can do about it. To prevent constipation, drink water and other fluids and eat a healthy diet – including plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Include physical activity in your daily routine. Don’t ignore the urge to have a bowel movement. If you’re taking medications that may contribute to constipation, ask your doctor about alternatives.
Your bladder and urinary tract
What’s happening? Loss of bladder control (urinary incontinence) is common with aging. Health problems such as obesity, frequent constipation and chronic cough may contribute to incontinence – as can menopause, for women, and an enlarged prostate, for men.
What you can do about it. Urinate more often. If you’re overweight, lose excess pounds. If you smoke, ask your doctor to help you quit. Pelvic muscle exercises (Kegel exercises) might help, too. Simply tighten your pelvic muscles as if you’re stopping your stream of urine. Aim for at least three sets of 10 repetitions a day. If these suggestions don’t help, ask your doctor about other treatment options.
What’s happening? Memory tends to becomes less efficient with age, as the number of cells (neurons) in the brain decreases. It may take longer to learn new things or remember familiar words or names.
What you can do about it. To keep your memory sharp, include physical activity in your daily routine and eat a healthy diet. It’s also helpful to stay mentally and socially active. If you’re concerned about memory loss, consult your doctor.
Your eyes and ears
What’s happening? With age, the eyes are less able to produce tears, the retinas thin, and the lenses gradually become less clear. Focusing on objects that are close up may become more difficult. You may become more sensitive to glare and have trouble adapting to different levels of light. Your hearing may dim somewhat as well. You may have difficulty hearing high frequencies or following a conversation in a crowded room.
What you can do about it. Schedule regular vision and hearing exams – then follow your doctor’s advice about glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids and other corrective devices. To prevent further damage, wear sunglasses when you’re outdoors and use earplugs when you’re around loud machinery or other loud noises.
What’s happening? Your mouth may begin to feel drier and your gums may pull back (recede) from your teeth. With less saliva to wash away bacteria your teeth and gums become slightly more vulnerable to decay and infection. Your teeth also may darken slightly and become more brittle and easier to break. What you can do about it. Brush your teeth twice a day and clean between your teeth – using regular dental floss or an interdental cleaner – once a day. Visit your dentist or dental hygienist for regular dental checkups.
What’s happening? With age, your skin thins and becomes less elastic and more fragile. You may notice that you bruise more easily. Decreased production of natural oils may make your skin drier and more wrinkled. Age spots can occur, and small growths called skin tags are more common. What you can do about it. Bathe in warm — not hot — water, and use mild soap and moisturizer. When you’re outdoors, use sunscreen and wear protective clothing. If you smoke, ask your doctor to help you quit. Smoking contributes to skin damage, such as wrinkling.
What’s happening? Maintaining a healthy weight — or losing weight if you’re overweight — is more difficult as you get older. Muscle mass tends to decrease with age, which leads to an increase in fat. Since fat tissue burns fewer calories than does muscle, you may need to reduce the number of calories in your diet or increase your physical activity simply to maintain your current weight. What you can do about it. To prevent unwanted weight gain, include physical activity in your daily routine and eat a healthy diet. Also keep an eye on portion sizes. You might not need to eat as much as you used to.
What’s happening? With age, sexual needs, patterns and performance may change. Illness or medication may affect your ability to enjoy sex. For women, vaginal dryness can make sex uncomfortable. For men, impotence may become a concern. It may take longer to get an erection, and erections may not be as firm as they used to be.
What you can do about it.Share your needs and concerns with your partner. You might experiment with different positions or sexual activities. Be open with your doctor, too. He or she may offer specific treatment suggestions – such as estrogen cream for vaginal dryness or oral medication for erectile dysfunction.