What is aging?
It’s vital to understand the challenges and best defensive strategies for the aging human, whether you’re caring for parents who are getting older or simply for your own benefit.
NIH (the National Institutes of Health) National Institute on Aging tells us that
“Aging is associated with changes in biological, physiological, environmental, psychological, behavioral, and social processes. Some age-related changes are benign, such as graying hair. Others result in declines in function of the senses and activities of daily life and increased susceptibility to and frequency of disease, frailty, or disability. In fact, advancing age is the major risk factor for a number of chronic diseases in humans.”
NIH goes on to say that "aging" is not as a single process, but includes genetic, biochemical, physiological, economic, social, and psychological factors. Advances in medication and education have greatly improved the lifespan of many. But the ongoing challenge is to make these additional years as healthy and productive as possible.
What are the effects of aging on the human body?
Chief areas of concern with aging include the cardiovascular system, muscles, bones, eyesight, and functions of the brain.
What is the effect of aging on the heart and vascular health?
Some changes in the heart and blood vessels are normal as we age. For example, medlineplus.gov explains that The heart has a natural pacemaker system that controls the heartbeat. Some of the pathways of this system may develop fibrous tissue and fat deposits. The natural pacemaker loses some of its cells. These changes may result in a slightly slower heart rate.
Some people develop a small increase in the size of their heart, or the heart wall gets thicker or may fill more slowly. Arrhythmias (a heartbeat that’s too fast, too slow, or irregular) are more common in older people.
Valves inside the heart can get thicker and stiffen, and the walls of smaller veins may thicken slightly so that wastes and nutrients are exchanged more slowly.
If the main artery from the heart (aorta) become stiffer and less flexible, blood pressure can rise, making the heart work harder. In general, most older people have a moderate increase in blood pressure.
Aside from physical changes, other conditions can make it harder for your heart to do its job well, including:
- Illness and infections
- Emotional stress
- Excessive physical exertion
- Particular medications
- Physical Injuries
You can help keep your heart and blood vessels healthy by controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, eating a heart-healthy diet, keeping a healthy weight, the elimination of smoking, and regularly getting moderate exercise.
What about muscle loss as you age? What is sarcopenia?
Your muscles are at their peak around the age of 30. During the following decade, a decline in muscle mass begins. Maintaining as much muscle as possible is crucial for strength and mobility.
Sarcopenia aging is the decline in skeletal muscle of older people. If this loss isn’t offset by the right kind of exercise and healthy diet, by the time you’re 70 you may end up with half the muscle mass you once had. Older people can find carrying loads much more difficult or impossible, be prone to falling, and experience a gradual loss of independence due to muscle loss.
Dr. Jeremy D. Walston, geriatrician at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine notes that
you can restore much of the strength lost with the right approach. Even among nursing home residents in their 90s, it’s possible to increase strength and muscle mass with regular strength training. Working with a physical therapist or licensed trainer is safest.
Adequate nutrients, especially protein, are essential in the diet to maintain healthy muscle tissue. Dr. John E. Morley, at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, says that “Protein acts synergistically with exercise to increase muscle mass,” adding that protein foods naturally rich in the amino acid leucine — milk, cheese, beef, tuna, chicken, peanuts, soybeans and eggs — are most effective.
What is osteoporosis and what is its connection to aging?
Similar to muscle decline, bone loss (osteoporosis) can accompany aging but can be resisted with exercise and the right diet.
NIH explains that
Bones feel solid, but the inside of a bone is actually filled with holes like a honeycomb. Bone tissues are broken down and rebuilt all the time. As we get older, we begin to lose more bone than we build. The tiny holes within bones get bigger, and the solid outer layer becomes thinner. In other words, our bones get less dense. If this loss of bone density goes too far, it’s called osteoporosis. Bones weakened by osteoporosis are more likely to break.
Osteoporosis is common in the hip bones, but also frequently in the wrist and spine. This most commonly occurs among older women, due to the loss of the estrogen hormone, but men get osteoporosis, too.
Getting enough calcium, vitamin D, and weight-bearing exercise is a good foundation to bone health and preventing osteoporosis. Since bones are rebuilding all the time, more bone growth can occur when these best practices are followed.
Screening for osteoporosis is done with a painless density test like an X-ray. This test may be ordered by your doctor if you’re considered at risk for bone loss or to get a baseline reading.
Smoking and alcohol consumption weaken bones too. Improving balance and preventing falls are currently an emphasis since even minor falls can lead to fractures. A combination of exercise that builds balance along with weight-bearing exercise to improve bone density is the ideal blend.
What are cataracts and how are they age-related?
The lens of the human eye is normally clear. Over time, cloudiness develops, causing blurry or “misty” vision. Cataracts can (rarely) occur in children, but age-related cataracts are common.
Cataracts will get worse over time. Stronger glasses and brighter reading lights may help, but
eventually, surgery is necessary to remove and replace the affected lens - it’s the only treatment shown to be effective for cataracts.
A variety of options are available for cataract surgery. Given your particular needs, there are even some cataract surgery options that can reduce or eliminate your need for glasses!
Normal daily activities such as driving become difficult or impossible as cataracts worsen. You should see an optician if you have any of these symptoms:
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty seeing in low light
- Colors look faded or darker than before
- Feeling that bright light is glaring
- An impression your glasses are dirty even when clean
Your risk of cataracts is higher if you smoke, drink too much alcohol, are diabetic, or have had to use long-term steroids. A family history of cataracts plays a part in determining cataract cause also.
What are the effects of aging on the brain?
As humans age, they may have more difficulty remembering names or a harder time coming up with a specific word. Multi-tasking can become harder, and sometimes it’s harder to pay attention.
But brain aging can bring positive changes, too, according to studies by NIH. “People often have more knowledge and insight from a lifetime of experiences.” Research shows that older adults can still
- Learn new things
- Create new memories
- Improve vocabulary and language skills
Although physical changes may affect mental function to some degree, NIH points out that given enough time, older brains can do as well as younger ones - growing evidence indicates the brain remains able to adapt to new challenges and tasks as we age.
Keeping the brain active and engaged will prevent decline, just like physical activity preserves the body’s functions. “Brain Games,” learning new hobbies or languages, and staying socially active are all great ways to keep your mind nimble. Some brain changes, like those associated with Alzheimer's disease, are NOT a normal part of aging.
What is Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer's is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. It’s the most common cause of dementia, a general term for memory loss that interferes with daily life.
Symptoms tend to develop slowly and get worse over time. Most people with Alzheimer's are 65 and older, but there is a younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease (early-onset Alzheimer’s).
Right now Alzheimer's has no cure. Treatments for symptoms cannot stop Alzheimer's from progressing, but they can improve the quality of the patient’s life and temporarily slow down the decline.
Researchers worldwide have made progress discovering how Alzheimer's affects the brain and are working to find new treatments.
What’s the connection between sleep and aging? How is Human Growth Hormone connected?
Human growth hormone (sometimes abbreviated HGH) is a protein produced by the pituitary gland.
Especially active in growing children, but also maintaining healthy body tissue into adulthood, HGH is released by the brain during sleep. The release of Human Growth Hormone is part of the repair and restorative function of sleep.
Sleep and exercise both cause HGH to be released. The majority of that release takes place during sleep - especially the first cycle of deep slumber about an hour after you fall asleep. Because senior citizens spend less time in deep sleep, lower HGH levels from sleep aging may translate to a higher risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Getting high-quality sleep on a regular basis is the most effective way to increase HGH levels. That means uninterrupted sleep for 7-9 hours each night. Exercising regularly promotes good sleep, and good sleep increases HGH secretion.
Interest has climbed in taking HGH supplements, but the effectiveness of these has been questioned. They’re also not approved by the FDA.
What’s the relationship between free radicals, an antioxidant, and aging?
Free radicals are unstable atoms that contribute to the aging process. These atoms play a part in diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Free radicals come from many sources.
There are natural free radicals resulting from your body turning food into energy, others come from sun exposure, substances used in processed food, toxins due to alcohol consumption, smoking, and air pollution.
Livescience.com tells us that “the body is under constant attack from oxidative stress. Oxygen in the body splits into single atoms with unpaired electrons. Electrons like to be in pairs, so these atoms, called free radicals, scavenge the body to seek out other electrons so they can become a pair. This causes damage to cells, proteins and DNA.”
Getting antioxidants from a healthy diet, or taking supplements to balance free radicals can help stop or limit the damage and postpone aging. Antioxidants can also boost your immunity.
But exercise caution - too much of any particular antioxidant can be harmful. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about major changes in diet or taking supplements.
Common antioxidants include:
- vitamin A
- vitamin C
- vitamin E
Look for high-quality protein sources, along with whole grains, nuts, and seeds, and eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. You’ll get fiber, minerals, and other health-enhancing ingredients along with your antioxidants that way.
What are steps to slow down the process of aging?
Some researchers believe that much of the aging process is optional. What you eat and the lifestyle you lead are the most significant contributors to your aging health. Here are some top recommendations for slow aging:
- Eat nutrient-dense whole foods. Steer clear of refined and processed foods. Avoid added sugar.
- Quit smoking. It’s related to a list of ailments from heart disease to lung disorders.
- Only drink alcohol in moderation. Stay hydrated with water.
- Exercise regularly and get your weight to a healthy level. A diet that mimics fasting appears to slow aging.
- Get plenty of restful sleep.
- Find a doctor who specializes in anti-aging.
- Minimize stress. It causes physiological reactions in the body leading to inflammation, and prevents good sleep.
- Do something useful with your life, even after retirement.