Ageing is a natural part of life. And, no matter how hard some try, we can’t avoid it.
But what is happening as we age? And what action can we take to minimise the impact of the changes?
When do we start to ‘age’?
It is generally accepted that the majority of our growth happens in the first four decades of life.
And, although there may be outliers and some individual variance, at this point (roughly our mid-to-late thirties), we start to see a gradual decline in parts of our physiology. I write this as a 36-year-old, and I can confirm a growing number of grey hairs!
Why do we age?
The mechanisms behind ageing are still up for debate. There are two main camps of thought.
One is that the environment we are exposed to predominantly determines the rate of the ageing process.
The second believes our genes predetermine ageing.
The likelihood (as with most things) is the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In both instances, an accumulation of changes happens to our cells, eventually expressing as ‘ageing’.
Our genetics play a role in the ageing process; however, there are many things we can do that will slow down (or speed up) the ageing process. (If you’re interested in learning more about one of the more popular ageing theories, check out this TED Talk by Nobel award-winning scientist Liz Blackburn.)
What are the most common changes we experience?
As the ageing process is effectively occurring at a cellular level, it affects all the different systems in our body.
I’m not going to write an exhaustive list because it’d blow the word limit on this article! And the typical trajectory of ageing means the older we grow, the more susceptible we become to various disease processes (sometimes making it hard to dissociate age-related changes from chronic disease).
The most common age-related changes we see as physiotherapists are:
- reductions in lean muscle mass (sarcopenia)
- reduced bone density (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
- decreased joint spaces and ease of movement (usually related to osteoarthritis)
- impaired gastrointestinal absorption and sleep disruptions (impact on energy and fatigue)
- changes to the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems (control of our balance)
The one missing here is the brain. We are generally more susceptible to changes in the brain as we age. However, there is usually a disease process (e.g. Alzheimer’s dementia) that is not a natural part of ageing.
What action can we take?
We can bury our heads in the sand regarding the ageing process. But, this is a case of ‘hope’ over action (i.e. we hope everything will work out rather than taking control of what we can).
The other problem with not taking action is the risk of developing non-age-related treatable diseases that we ignore as ‘ageing’.
Steps we can take:
- Start regular health checks from 40 years old to understand how your body changes. Baseline measures make it easier to identify when something is a natural progression vs a non-age-related disease.
- Build healthy exercise and movement habits. The link between accelerated ageing and sedentary lifestyles is a fact.
- Like with exercise and movement, poor nutrition and hydration also impact the rate of ageing. Understand what you are eating and stick to a balanced wholefood diet with enough energy to support your body and lifestyle.
- It gets harder to achieve high-quality sleep as we grow older. Regular bed and wake times can help with this while avoiding stimulating light (screens) close to bedtime.
And, if you need to start doing any of the above, remember, you are never too old to begin!
Article written by Mike Quinn, TPC Ops Guy