Changes and Challenges of Aging


Many of you may have noticed that a person’s actual age may not match his or her actual appearance such a mismatch of someone’s biological age against his or her chronological age is attributed to the life that the person chooses to live.

There are over 35 million Americans (about 12% of the U.S. population) over 65. As the baby boomers (the generation of Americans born between the late 1940s and the early 1060s) age, this number will nearly double by 2030.

The question as to when a person becomes old can be answered in different ways. Chronologic age helps predict many health problems, it has some legal and financial uses. It is also used to determine eligibility for some programs for older people. Biological age refers to changes in the body that commonly occur as people age. For example, vision and hearing typically worsen as people age. Because these changes affect some people more than others, some people are biologically old at 40, and others are biologically young at 60 and even older.

As the years pass, most people experience changes in the way their body functions. Some changes are obvious. For example, before age 50, most people begin to have trouble seeing objects that are up close. Other changes are hardly noticeable. For example, few people are aware that the kidneys may become less able to filter waste products out of the blood, because the kidneys usually continue to filter the blood well enough to avoid problems. Most people learn that their kidneys have aged only if a disorder develops.

As people age, they may hear less well, and balance may become slightly harder to maintain. These changes occur because some structures in the ear that help with hearing or balance deteriorate slightly. Also, earwax tends to accumulate more as people age. This accumulation can interfere with hearing.

As people age, the number and the sensitivity of taste buds on the tongue decrease. These changes tend to reduce the ability to taste sweet and salt more than the ability to taste bitter and sour. The ability to smell declines slightly. Strong smells remain easy to detect, but more subtle smells may taste bland. Older people may notice that their mount feels dry more often. As people age, less saliva is produced, However, dry mouth may result from a disorder of the use of certain drugs. Dry mouth further reduces the ability to taste and smell the aromas of food.

As people age, the skin tends to become thinner, less elastic, drier, and finally wrinkled. However, exposure to sunlight over the years contributes to wrinkling and to making the skin rough and blotchy. As people age the number of pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) decreases. Thus, the skin has less protection against ultraviolet (UV) radiation, such as that from sunlight.

As people age, bones tend to become less dense. Bones become weaker and more likely to break. In women, loss of bone density speeds up after menopause. Regular exercise can partially overcome or at least significantly delay the loss of muscle mass and strength.

As people age, the amount of muscle tissue (muscle mass) and muscle strength tend to decrease. This process is called sarcopenia (which literally means loss of flesh). Loss of muscle mass begins around age 30 and continues throughout life. Regular exercise can partially overcome of at least significantly delay the loss of muscle mass and strength.

As people age, the number of nerve cells in the brain decreases only slightly. Several things help compensate for this decline. As cells are lost, new nerve cells may form in some areas of the brain, even during old age. In addition, the brain has more cells than it needs to perform most activities.

As people age, the heart and blood vessels change in many ways. The walls of the heart become stiffer, and the heart fills with blood more slowly. The walls of the arteries become thicker and less elastic. The arteries become less able to respond to changes in the amount of blood pumped through them. Thus, blood pressure is higher in older people than in younger people.

As people age, the muscles used in breathing, such as the diaphragm, tend to weaken. Also, slightly less oxygen is absorbed from air that is breathed in. The lungs become less able to fight infection, in part because the cells that sweep debris out of the airways are less able to do so.

As people age, the digestive system is affected in several ways. But these changes have little effect on function. The muscles of the esophagus contract less forcefully, but movement of food trough the esophagus is not affected. Food is emptied form the stomach more slowly, and the stomach cannot hold as much good because it is less elastic. But in most people, these changes are too slight to be noticed.

As people age, the kidneys tend to become smaller (because the number of cells decreases), and less blood flows through them. The urinary tract changes in several ways that may make controlling urination more difficult. The maximum volume of urine that the bladder can hold decreases.

As people age, the immune system becomes less effective. But the change is so slight that most people do not notice it. Most people notice that the body is less able to fight infections only when infections linger of become severe. This slowdown may be one reason that cancer is more common among older people. Also vaccines tend to be less protective in older people.