Effects of Aging on Body Composition
Typically, as we age, our body shape changes, and along with this, the percentages of fat, bone, water, and muscle change as well. You may have noticed some changes in your loved ones and even in your friends, family, your acquaintances, and even in your own body.
This article looks more closely into the common effects of aging on our bodies and what lifestyle choices we can make to help reduce or lessen these age-related body changes.
What are the common effects of aging: muscle loss, increase in body fat, loss of bone mass, and shrinkage in height?
Most seniors experience muscle loss to some degree. Our muscles generally lose their strength, endurance, and flexibility as we age. Numerous health studies have shown that we can see the effects of aging on our muscles as early as age 30. A steady decline continues throughout our lives. In fact, between the ages of 30-80, our bodies tend to lose between 30-50% of our total muscle strength.
What happens when you lose muscle?
First off, muscle loss can lead to a slower rate of metabolism because muscle is known to burn more calories than fat. This, in turn, then leads to an increase in body fat. Additionally, when muscles are weaker, your coordination, stability, and balance are negatively impacted.
Increase in Body Fat
As you age, the amount of body fat for seniors typically increases to having nearly one-third more fat compared to the amount of fat they had when younger. Overall, a senior’s body tends to be less firm and flabbier (especially under the upper arms and the backs of the thighs) and there is usually an accumulation of body fat around their abdominal region, an area associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Also, this excess body fat and changes in body shape can affect your balance leading to hazardous falls.
Then after this usual weight gain, both men and women tend to lose weight later on in life. For men, this may be related to a drop in the male sex hormone testosterone beginning typically at the age of 55 and continuing as they age. And for women, this is because when the fat replaces the lean muscle tissue, it weighs less. So, weight loss appears usually after the age of 65 and continues as they age.
Loss of Bone Mass
Another change to your body composition as you age is the loss of bone mass. Your bones tend to lose some of their minerals and become less dense. The technical term is osteopenia (i.e., when your bones are weaker than normal) which can lead to osteoporosis, whereby your bones tend to be brittle. With brittle bones, you are more apt to experience a fracture or break if you should fall. Osteoporosis also leads to changes in your posture (i.e., stopped or bent-over posture) and other health complications (e.g., limited mobility, depression, loss of independence and isolation, pain, etc.).
Shrinkage in Height
Another result of aging on our bodies is that we tend to shrink in height. This phenomenon occurs across all races and for both sexes. Women lose on average approximately 3-4 inches and men lose about 2-3 inches by the age of 80. This “shrinking” is a direct result of bone loss and the fact that the discs between your vertebrae in the spine tend to flatten over time. This shrinkage is caused by the loss of muscle mass in our torsos. From this, we can develop a stooped posture that results in us looking even shorter. This loss of height can often lead to an increase in health risks, most commonly breaking a hip. (300,000 Americans over the age of 65 break their hip each year.)
What lifestyle changes tend to slow down or speed up the aging process and its impact on our physical bodies?
There are some concrete steps you can take to offset the slower metabolism and weight gain, build strong muscles and bone density, and lessen shrinkage in height. None of these suggestions are earth-shaking new ideas. They are the same suggestions for healthy living. The suggestions include partaking in sufficient amounts of exercise/physical activity, eating a healthy diet, getting enough vitamin D and calcium, and controlling alcohol/eliminating tobacco and illicit drugs. Let’s take a closer look at each of these suggestions.
Daily Exercise/Physical activity
Strength training, weight-bearing activities like dancing and walking, resistance exercises like weightlifting, and yoga are several activities that can help you achieve positive results for your body composition. Remember that before beginning any new fitness/physical activity, consult with your physician. It is recommended that seniors who are 65 or older should get at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise every week. This equals to about 30 minutes each day. Or you should get approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous exercise (such as jogging) each week.
Eating a healthy diet
A healthy diet includes vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and the right amounts of healthy fats. Senior women who are active (see above fitness/physical activity guidelines) need about 1,800 calories each day. Men who are active (see above fitness/physical activity guidelines) need about 2,300 calories each day. The USDA Food Guide MyPlate Plan suggests that you fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruits; 30% of your plate is grains with half of your grains being whole grains; the remaining 20% of your plate is protein. Included in the protein is at least one serving of milk or yogurt. You should also choose foods with low sodium amounts.
Getting enough vitamin D and calcium
If you don’t know what is the right amount of vitamin D and calcium for your body, ask your doctor or a dietician. Good sources of vitamin D in addition to the natural rays of the sun include fortified drinks and cereals, fatty fish (eggs, and mushrooms. And foods rich in calcium include tofu, yogurt, and any variety of leafy greens.
Controlling alcohol/eliminating tobacco and illicit drugs
Moderate alcohol use for seniors is consuming up to one drink a day for women and men older than age 65. Many studies have shown the negative impact of tobacco and illicit drugs on a person’s physical and mental health. The best advice is to avoid tobacco and illicit drugs completely.
Although the aging process is inevitable, there are some positive lifestyle choices that can help reduce or lessen the changes in your metabolism, body weight, muscles, bones, and overall height as you age. Engaging in physical activity on a regular basis, eating a healthy diet, getting enough vitamin D and calcium, and limiting alcohol/avoiding tobacco and illicit drugs are some of the steps to best help your body as you age. These are choices that we all can make to help our bodies stay as healthy as possible, no matter how many birthdays we are fortunate to celebrate!
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