10 Steps to Healthy, Happy Aging
Getting older doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a slew of medical conditions or poor quality of life, but it’s important to know what’s normal for your body as you age and what is not.
Getting older involves changes in all realms of life, from the physical to the mental to the social, emotional, sexual, and more. Some of these changes you may regard as positive and some negative. The challenge is to maximize the good parts of getting older while taking proactive steps to maintain your health and minimize the negative aspects.
What’s Normal When It Comes to Aging (and What’s Not)?
Knowing what mental and physical changes normally occur with age is the first step toward protecting your health. Here are some of the more common bodily changes you can expect:
- Your Bones Bones become thinner and more brittle with age as they lose mass, or density, according to Medline Plus, sometimes resulting in osteoporosis. Low bone mass raises your risk of broken bones, including in the vertebrae (bones of the spine), which can cause a stooped posture and loss of height. While low bone mass and osteoporosis are more common in women, they can occur in men, too. Be sure to talk with your physician about what you can do to prevent osteoporosis. Oftentimes, the first sign you have it is a broken bone.
- Your Heart As you age, your large arteries become stiffer, a condition called arteriosclerosis, contributing to higher blood pressure. The walls of the arteries also tend to accumulate a buildup of fatty deposits, called plaques, which also harden and narrow the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart. The buildup of fatty deposits is called atherosclerosis, and a buildup of plaque in the arteries leading to your heart is known as coronary artery disease and is a major risk factor for heart attack. While not all of the heart and blood vessel changes associated with aging can be controlled, following a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity can almost always help to keep your arteries and heart healthier for longer.
- Your Brain It’s common for people to experience some slight forgetfulness as they get older, and their ability to process new information or to multitask may slow with age as well, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, when confusion and memory problems go beyond the occasional “senior moment,” that’s not normal, and you should have it checked out by a medical professional. You could be in the early stages of dementia, but you could also have a treatable condition that’s affecting your brain.
- Your Digestive System As you age, your digestive tract slows down and doesn't contract as often as it did when you were younger, which can lead to constipation, stomach pain, and feelings of nausea. Many medications also cause or contribute to constipation. To prevent these digestive problems, the Mayo Clinic recommends following a diet that’s rich in fiber, drinking plenty of fluids, keeping as active as possible, and doing your best to manage stress.
- Your Senses As you age, you may notice that your five senses — hearing, vision, taste, smell, and touch — aren't quite as sharp as they once were, according to Medline Plus. Changes within the structures of the ear may cause you some degree of hearing loss and may also affect your sense of balance. The sharpness of your vision may dull, and you may need reading glasses. You may start to lose your sense of taste, thanks to a decrease in your number of taste buds. Consequently, flavors may not seem as distinct to you, nor as vivid. Your sense of smell may weaken with age due to decreased mucus production and a loss of nerve endings in the nose. You may also find that your sensitivity to touch, pain, pressure, and vibration is reduced — although some people become more sensitive to touch because of thinning skin.
- Your Teeth and Gums The tough enamel that protects your teeth from decay can start to wear away over the years, leaving you susceptible to cavities. Moreover, per the American Dental Association (ADA), the nerves in your teeth can become smaller with age, leaving you less sensitive to pain and potentially delaying a diagnosis of cavities or cracks in the tooth’s outer surface. And according to an article published in June 2017 in the American Journal of Public Health, more than half of people over age 65 have moderate or severe gum disease; the same article states that around 400 commonly used medications can cause dry mouth, which heightens the risk of oral diseases.
- Your Skin As you age, your skin loses its elasticity and may start to sag and wrinkle. However, the more you protected your skin from sun damage and smoking when you were younger, the better your skin will look as you get older. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen and moisturizer as the two most important anti-aging products you should be using. Wearing a hat with a brim will also protect the skin on your scalp and face. Start protecting your skin now to prevent further damage and to lower your risk of skin cancer.
- Your Sexual Function After menopause, when menstruation stops and estrogen levels drop, many women experience physical changes, including reduced vaginal lubrication. Per the North American Menopause Society, these changes can also reduce your sex drive. For men, advancing age is often accompanied by erectile dysfunction — though, as the American Sexual Health Association points out, this is not a normal part of aging and may indicate an underlying medical issue or occur as a side effect of a medication. Fortunately, many of these physical issues can be readily treated or, if not, accommodated by open-minded partners who are willing to experiment.
While many of these bodily changes are a natural part of aging, they don’t have to slow you down. What’s more, there's a lot you can do to protect your body and keep it as healthy as possible.