The Physiology of the Aging Body

The aging body is a popular research subject. At the present time scientists and researchers have no consensus over what causes aging. There are, however, two general theories. One is that we are physiologically programmed to age; hormones become less effective, the immune system efficiency declines and genes switch on and off over time. The other theory is that the aging body just wears out. The programmed theory makes sense. My opinion is that as a living thing on planet Earth we must physically die if the system is to remain orderly. Chaos would abound if a few species were to live beyond their time line.

An aging body is part of our life journey. We have no control over the fact that we eventually, physically die but we may have some input into making the process less debilitating if not downright peaceful.

Different body systems age at different rates and in different ways. The most visible, of course, are the skin, bones and joints, and to some extent muscle. All happen over time; some starting as soon as we reach maturity. I will review several of them and make some suggestions as to how we may ease the process in each case.

  • The Skin...The elasticity, tone and texture of the skin are maintained by the proteins collagen and elastin. By the mid twenties the body has begun to produce less of these. Cells are replaced more slowly in the aging body and by age 45 a thinning of the skin begins, partly caused by hormonal changes. These are natural processes that are going to happen to everyone at varying rates and are simply indications of an aging body.

    What you have some control over...Some of the choices we make can accelerate skin deterioration: Lifestyle choices such as smoking or drinking, stress levels, diet, physical activity (There is no physical condition that can not be improved with a nutritious diet and regular exercise).

    Sun exposure can age the skin and over exposure can cause skin cancer but Vitamin D is essential to healthy skin and the best source is from sunlight. Here is what one expert has to say about that:"When wearing sunscreen, you will absolutely prevent the synthesis of vitamin D -- even more so than you will prevent skin cancer," says Cedric Garland, DPH, professor of family and preventative medicine at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine.

    People who eat lots of fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C have healthier looking skin than those who eat lots of meat. The Vitamin C in fresh foods are great collagen producers.

  • Bones and Joints...Bone mass or density is lost as people age, especially in women after menopause. The bones lose calcium and other minerals. Osteoporosis is caused by loss of bone usually a result of calcium depletion.

    The spine is made up of bones called vertebrae. Between each bone is a gel-like cushion or disk. The trunk becomes shorter as the disks gradually lose fluid and become thinner.

    What you have some control over...Regular exercise, especially weight training or other resistance work outs, can slow these depletion processes.

    Eating a well balanced diet with emphasis on Vitamin D and calcium is very helpful. Remember that digesting red meats tends to leach calcium from the system. Also, it is much more efficient to get your Vitamin D from the sun than from supplements. If you expose 20% of your body to the sun for 10 minutes a day you will get more Vitamin D than you would from a whole liter of milk.

  • Muscles...Loss of lean body mass (LBM) contributes to the loss of muscle strength, which is noted to decline by about 8-16% per decade after approximately 50 yrs of age.

    What you have some control over...This one is easy. Unless you have a severe chronic medical condition there is no reason to lose muscle with age. It does, however, require a concerted effort. Regular resistance training such as weight lifting can actually increase muscle strength and LBM in men and women of any age. This has been proven time and again and you will find little evidence to the contrary.

  • Heart and Blood Vessels...Heart muscle strength declines with age. As pumping power declines maximal heart rate (the highest number of times your heart can contract in a minute) also decreases. When the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute declines, systolic blood pressure tends to rise.

    When aging blood vessels lose their elasticity "hardening of the arteries" occurs which is often a prelude to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

    Though these conditions are attributed to aging, Age itself is not a risk factor but people tend to put on weight and become more inactive as they age.

    What you have some control over...Eat a heart-healthy diet with reduced amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol, and control your weight. And of course regular exercise can strengthen the heart and blood vessels.

  • Mind and Brain...In The Aging Mind you will find that the aging mind does not react to time in the same way as the aging body does. Although it's function seems to slow down, in some ways, it actually improves.

People do not die of old age--at least it cannot be listed as cause of death on legal documents. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading causes of death among those ages 65 and over are, in descending order, heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza, kidney disease, accidents and infection.

Although all of us eventually die, most of the conditions that accompany the aging body can benefit tremendously from healthy life style choices.

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