The aging process happens during all stages of an individual’s life span. We are all involved in this process and none of us can escape it. When we are young, aging is associated with growth, maturation, and discovery. Many human abilities peak before age 30, while other abilities continue to grow throughout a person’s life.
The great majority of people over age 65 today are healthy, happy, and fully independent. In spite of this, some individuals may begin to experience changes that are perceived as signs of deterioration or decline. We must try to forget the stereotypes and look at older individuals as unique persons, each with a particular set of resources and challenges.
The changes aging individuals experience are not necessarily harmful. With age, hair thins and turns gray. Skin thins, becomes less elastic, and sags. There is a slowing down of functions which goes forward throughout adulthood, such as decreasing function of bodily organs (for example, in the gastrointestinal system production of digestive enzymes can diminish, reducing the body’s ability to break down and absorb nutrition from food). However, other losses may not be noticeable until later in life.
Scientists theorize that how you age likely results from a combination of many factors: genes, lifestyle, and disease can all affect the rate you age. Normal aging may bring about the following changes listed below. Consult with a medical professional if you notice any abnormal health changes or problems as you age; they may be indicative of other health issues unrelated to the aging process.
Some things that will change as you or your loved one get older include (*):
Increased frequency in urination is common with age as the bladder muscles relax without warning due to infection, irritation, damage to nerves, and other causes. Women are more likely than men to be incontinent. There are different types of incontinence, so discuss bladder problems with a medical professional. They may have you start Pelvic muscle/Kegel exercises or lifestyle changes such as weight loss, stopping smoking, less alcohol and caffeine, etc.
Bones, joints, and muscles
Somewhere around age 35, bones begin to lose minerals faster than they are being replaced. Bones shrink in size and density as you age, which makes them weaker and susceptible to fractures. Muscles lose strength and flexibility. You may become less coordinated and may even become shorter. Calcium and Vitamin D supplements will promote healthy bones, muscles, and joints.
As you or your loved one ages, your heart rate may slow and blood vessels and arteries may become stiffer, causing your heart to work harder. This can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) and other heart problems. Make sure to exercise daily, eat healthy, and manage your stress.
Loss of peripheral vision and decreased ability to judge depth may affect daily activities such as reading, watching television, and especially driving (Read more about seniors and driving here.) You may also experience a decreased clarity of color perception, i.e. certain colors may no longer look as vivid or as you remembered. Regular vision exams for everyone over the age of 60 are recommended.
Loss of hearing acuity, especially sounds at the higher end of the spectrum (high-pitched voices, i.e. women and children) is extremely common, as is decreasing ability to distinguish sounds when there is background noise. There are a number of assistive devices besides hearing aids to help you maintain your quality of life: telephone-amplifying devices, TV and radio listening systems, and emergency alerts for doorbells, smoke detectors, and alarm clocks that can signal you visually or through vibrations.
Somewhere around age 20, lung tissue begins to lose its elasticity and rib cage muscles shrink progressively. Maximum breathing capacity diminishes with each decade of life. This may manifest as shortness of breath, lung infections (pneumonia and bronchitis), low oxygen levels (which reduces the body’s ability to fight diseases), and abnormal breathing patterns such as sleep apnea. Some ways to prevent these problems include: stopping smoking, daily physical exercise to improve lung function, and avoiding lying in bed or sitting for long periods, which allows mucus to collect in the lungs, especially right after illness or surgery.
As you age, your brain loses some of the structures connecting nerve cells, and the function of the cells themselves diminish, increasing “senior moments.”
Memory may become less efficient with age, but there are ways to keep your mind sharp. Eat a healthy diet and maintain exercise. Stay mentally active by learning new things: do crossword puzzles, take alternate routes when driving, or learn a new hobby. Social interaction can also keep you mentally stimulated.
As your bodily functions slow, the food, medicine, and drinks you imbibe are not processed as quickly. Prescription medication and diets may require adjustments. Alcohol and caffeine intake may also affect you differently.
As you age, your skin may become thinner and more elastic or fragile. You may bruise easily or notice your skin has become drier. Cuts and bruises will take longer to heal. Take more precautions by bathing in warm (not hot) water and use mild soaps and moisturizers. Use sunscreen and protective clothing outdoors.
Sexual needs, patterns, and performance may change as you grow older. Illness or medication may affect your ability to perform or enjoy sex. Talk to a doctor who can make specific treatment suggestions, such as estrogen cream for vaginal dryness or oral medication for erectile dysfunction.
Knowing what to expect as you and your loved one ages is the best way to prevent mental and physical health problems and to adopt healthy lifestyles to make your golden years comfortable and enjoyable.
Smell and Taste
The senses of smell and taste work together, so it follows that a decrease in one ability can lead to a decrease in the other. The number of taste buds decreases as you age, with the remaining taste buds losing mass (atrophying). You may also experience dry mouth more often — your mouth produces less saliva as you age — which can affect taste. Avoid smoking and exposure to harmful particles in the air, which can accelerate loss of taste and smell. Check with a doctor that none of your medication alters your ability to taste and smell things. Look into products such as gas detectors that give off alarms you can see and hear if you are concerned about being unable to smell gas leaks yourself.
Your gums may pull back (recede) from your teeth with age. Certain medicate can also cause dry mouth, leaving your teeth and gums vulnerable to decay and infection. Brush and floss daily and keep regular checkups with your dental hygienist.
(*) As compiled by the Mayo Clinic. Expanded on by The Caregiver Foundation.
Physical losses and social losses that accompany aging can also be very difficult emotionally. Grief and sadness are normal reactions to such situations, and we cannot stamp out these reactions in ourselves or our older relatives. Just as the physical losses of later life can be compensated for, so can the social and emotional losses be overcome.
Call Executive Director Gary A. Powell for more information on our workshop, “The Slow Goodbye,” which deals intimately with what to expect as a loved one ages while receiving caregiving, including how to deal with the mental and physical strain and planning for long-term and hospice care.