It's not just our spines that shrink as we age. Pip Harry finds out which body parts lose a few sizes over a lifetime and what you can do to protect yourself.
Spinal surgeon Dr Randolph Gray from Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney says we can all expect
to lose a few centimetres from our height as we grow older. "The average loss of height from 30 to 70 years is around 3cm in men and 5cm in women. This then increases to 5cm in men and 8cm in women in the next decade of life."
The spine shrinks due to a normal age-related degenerative process which includes the discs, vertebrae and joints. "The loss of disc and vertebral body height will also increase kyphosis (forward bending of the spine) and contribute to apparent loss of height," says Gray.
Look out for a rapid loss of height and a change in posture, such as a noticeable hunching of the upper back, as this can be a sign of a more serious condition. "This would be a sign of severe osteoporosis of the vertebral column," says Gray.
What you can do:
In Australia, about half of all women and one third of men over 60 years have osteoporosis. Women are more susceptible due to hormonal changes during menopause. To help avoid osteoporosis, stick to a healthy diet which includes plenty of calcium-rich foods, and keep active. Exercising regularly can reduce the rate of bone loss. Try weight-bearing exercise like dancing, resistance-based training such as swimming or weights, and yoga or Tai Chi for improved posture and balance.
The brain weighs about 350g to 400g at birth, growing to 1.3kg to 1.4kg in adulthood, but will shrink around 15 per cent over a lifetime.
The brain also loses neurons (brain cells) each year as we age. "Measurement of brains from across the human lifespan has demonstrated that the brain loses 31 million neurons per year
in normal ageing," says Associate Professor Martin Krause, director of the Stroke & Neuroscience Network at Royal North Shore Hospital.
What you can do
: As well as eating right, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep, spending just 10 to 15 minutes a day doing simple, structured mental tasks can improve memory and concentration and keep the brain in tip-top condition. That could be listening to classical music, doing Sudoku, a cryptic crossword or reading.
Parts that Grow!
Professor Henry Krum, director of Monash University's Centre of Cardiovascular Research and Education in Therapeutics, says the heart can balloon when it's not functioning correctly. "In normal ageing the heart doesn't change its shape much, if the heart is healthy. But if anything else is going on like heart attack or high blood pressure, it can cause dramatic changes in the heart's shape and size. In some cases the heart can double in size. We call this the 'wall-to-wall' effect, as the heart will take up the entire chest cavity, instead of just the one side."
What you can do: Simple lifestyle changes will help with heart health, says Krum. "Keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol under control will reduce risk of heart attack. That involves plenty of exercise, minimising salt in the diet, reducing alcohol intake and losing any extra weight. It's also important to give up smoking and try to reduce cholesterol in your diet by avoiding saturated fats."
Our bones stop growing after puberty, but our ears, which are made up of cartilage, continue to grow throughout our lives. The ear lobes stretch and elongate, making the ears appear larger. Ear circumference increases an average of half a millimetre per year.
What you can do:
Plastic surgery can be used to repair stretched ear lobes.
For the full story, see the April issue of Good Health. Subscribe to 12 issues of Good Health for $59.95 and receive free Advanced Natural Rebalancing Moisturiser.