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Everything Changes as We Age

| June 30, 2016
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Aging Parents

How does your body change as you age?  It is essential to understand what is happening naturally to your body in order to understand what is happening to your brain.  You may be surprised to find out how early these aging changes are occurring.

What are the signs of aging?

  • Our hair may begin to thin in our 20s. Gray hair appears in our 30s or 40s but by the time we are in our 70s our hair is most likely completely gray.
  • Weight appears in all the wrong places. Women usually gain weight in their hips and thighs, while men develop ‘beer bellies’ or ‘love handles’.
  • During our 40s, our skin begins to sag and lose elasticity. Wrinkles become more prominent.
  • Flexibility begins to decline in our mid-20s, and muscle strength declines in our late 30s or early 40s. As muscle mass and strength decline, we burn calories less efficiently and store food as fat more easily.
  • Our eye lens changes shape and becomes thicker and less pliable, making it more difficult to see close objects. By age 50, nearly everyone requires glasses to read the newspaper.
  • In our 70s, we lose height when thinning vertebrae shrink.

Feeling old right about now? 

Aging is characterized by a slow loss of capacity in all our body systems beginning in early childhood and progressing throughout our adult lives. If we lead a sedentary lifestyle we can actually accelerate this aging process. 

We experience changes in our body composition as we get older. Should we be fortunate enough to maintain our body weight between the ages of 30 and 70, the amount of muscle decreases and fat increases.  This accelerated loss of muscle affects the efficiency of our metabolism and prevents the body from burning fuel efficiently.  As we age, we have less muscle to burn energy and so we store fat.  This decrease in muscle and an increase in fat are responsible for much of the weight gain that occurs with aging.

What aging changes have a direct impact on brain function?

Hearing is a very big aging issue:

Although it declines with aging, there seems to be some ingrained belief that only old people have hearing loss.  Untreated hearing loss can cause an increase in cognitive load.  That means that the brain is working especially hard to figure out what you heard.  This causes the processing speed of the brain to slow down and eventually can stop the communication process altogether.  This sounds brutal and it is.  Hearing is a very important pathway for information to get into the brain.  A clear signal is crucial for brain function and memory formation. 

Vision is the next aging issue to be addressed: 

Sight does diminish with age.  To be able to focus on close objects, the lens must increase in thickness.  As we age the flexibility of the lens decreases and we are not able to correct our vision to see objects close.  A more persistent problem and one that can be dangerous is the inability to see clearly at night.  Driving in the dark is perilous and walking on a dark street can be risky.  Clear vision sends clear messages to the brain.  If our vision is impaired our brain function can decline.  Vision is a powerful pathway for memory formation.

Cardiovascular endurance:

Cardiovascular endurance is the ability of our body to take up and efficiently use oxygen.  The better our endurance, the better our bodies work. Lung capacity declines modestly with age and the heart’s pumping function also declines. Remember that 25% of the blood, oxygen and carbohydrates from each heartbeat go directly to the brain for energy and nutrition.  If our cardiovascular system is impaired our brain suffers as a direct result.

The declines we experience with aging can be controlled by our lifestyle.  This goes for the body but it especially goes for the brain.  Aging happens.  We can gracefully age and function independently into an extended lifetime or we can accelerate aging changes by the lifestyle we live.  What do you choose?

This fall,  Patricia will be speaking at our client event. She will discuss the specific losses and risks the brain sustains from inactivity as one ages. Read here for more information about our event - Your Healthy Brain as You Age: You Can Make a Difference.

Other resources for further reading:

  • Ettinger,W.H., Mitchell,B.S., Blair, S.N. (1996). Fitness after 50 - It’s Never Too Late to Start
  • Patricia’s Blog at My Boomer Brain: www.myboomerbrain.com
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