How the Body Changes as We Age

Aging isn’t usually something that people like to think about or discuss all that often. It is, however, part of the natural life cycle and something all of us will ultimately experience. As you get older, you will start to notice changes in your body. These changes that occur can be both physical and mental. For example, you might be feeling more fatigued than you used to, you may notice the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, you might have more overall body aches and pains, trouble with your eyesight, or your memory may not be as sharp as it once was. While some of these things may not necessarily be cause for immediate concern from an emergency standpoint, you should always report any changes with your health to your physician.

One of the most common conditions that is associated with aging is arthritis. While arthritis can affect individuals of all ages, it most commonly affects adults aged 65 or older. (Other risk factors include gender, obesity, genetics, smoking, and having a diet low in calcium and vitamin D.) Osteoarthritis — also sometimes referred to as degenerative joint disease — is the most common type of arthritis that is diagnosed and associated with aging. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions your joints starts to deteriorate and wears down, causing bone to rub on bone, which results in pain that is typically felt in the spine, hips, knees, and hands. In addition to experiencing pain, other symptoms of osteoarthritis can also include joint stiffness and/or swelling (due to inflammation), popping or cracking of the joints (sometimes described as feeling like a “grating” sensation), decreased range of motion, and bone spurs. Because osteoporosis is a degenerative disease, this means that it can’t be reversed and can result in chronic pain. To help alleviate the symptoms associated with osteoporosis, the recommended treatment is often a combination of medications (such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and physical or occupational therapy, as well as lifestyle changes (such as exercise and weight loss.) If these types of conservative treatments are not helpful, your doctor may also recommend that you get corticosteroid injections. In severe cases, joint replacement surgery (known as arthroplasty) may also be recommended.

An increase in the number of infections one might develop can also become a concern as you get older. COVID-19, for example, is a respiratory virus that affects a high rate of seniors — particularly those in long-term care. It’s also not uncommon for those who are older to develop pneumonia — a type of infection that impacts the lungs. This is because as we age, our immune systems aren’t as strong as they once were, which makes it harder to ward off infections. Symptoms of pneumonia can vary from person to person, but usually include things like pain in the chest or rib area, coughing, shortness of breath, fever or chills, weakness, fatigue, and confusion. If you are suspected to have pneumonia, your doctor will order a CT scan or X-ray to confirm the diagnosis. Bacterial pneumonia is also treated with antibiotics. In most cases, pneumonia can be treated at home, but it’s also not uncommon for seniors to be hospitalized as a result as some may require oxygen therapy.

Our skin also changes as we get older. It may start to look dull in appearance, you may notice the development of wrinkles, it may feel dry, and your skin may also bruise more easily. If you suffer from dry or itchy skin, this may also be attributed to not drinking enough water, smoking, spending too much time in the sun, or loss of sweat and oil glands (which is also common with aging.) To help prevent dry skin, you should increase your water intake as well as make sure you moisturize the skin daily, use mild soap, and use a humidifier to add moisture to your living space. You may also notice the appearance of flat, brown spots on the skin — also known as “age spots” — which commonly appear on areas such as the hands, arms, face and back, are usually the result of years of exposure to the sun. These are, however, typically harmless. Regardless of our age, it’s important to take good care of our skin by doing things like limiting how much time we spend in the sun, use sunscreen when we’re going to be exposed to the sun, avoid tanning, as well as wear protective clothing.

Vision can also deteriorate as you get older. You may need glasses for reading, while other eye-related problems such as age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma can also develop. Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in individuals aged 50 or older. With AMD, you may have trouble adapting to low light and need brighter lighting, have blurred vision, a reduction in your central vision, as well as distortion in your field of vision and retinal damage. Glaucoma is a condition that causes damage to the optic nerve due to high pressure in the eye, and it is the leading cause of blindness in individuals over the age of 60. With glaucoma you may experience symptoms such as blurred vision, halos around lights, eye pain, eye redness, headache, nausea and vomiting. Depending on the severity of your condition, glaucoma is treated with things like prescription eyedrops, oral medication, and surgery. In order to prevent these eye conditions from developing as well as to detect them early, it’s important that you see your optometrist for regular eye exams.

When it comes to memory and forgetfulness, it’s not uncommon to lose things from time to time. We’ve all misplaced our keys or forgotten where we’ve written down someone’s name or phone number. These occasional lapses in memory aren’t typically cause for concern. However, if they become frequent, or if you (or someone you know) becomes unable to perform everyday tasks, has trouble recalling specific instances, gets lost easily, easily disoriented, or forgets certain words, then these may be signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease typically affects those over the age of 65, while early-onset Alzheimer’s disease can affect those under the age of 65. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, certain things can help slow the progression of the disease, such as getting regular exercise, eating a brain-healthy diet, strengthening your cognitive skills, managing stress, as well as taking care of your heart health.

Originally published at https://alighahary.ca on January 12, 2021.

Dr. Ali Ghahary is a Family Physician in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. http://www.alighahary.ca