Getting older involves changes in all realms of life, from the physical to the mental to the social, emotional, sexual, and more. Some of these changes you may regard as positive and some negative. The challenge is to maximize the good parts of getting older while taking proactive steps to maintain your health and minimize the negative aspects.
What’s Normal When It Comes to Aging (and What’s Not)?
Knowing what mental and physical changes normally occur with age is the first step toward protecting your health. Here are some of the more common bodily changes you can expect:
- Your Bones Bones become thinner and more brittle with age as they lose mass, or density, according to Medline Plus, sometimes resulting in osteoporosis. Low bone mass raises your risk of broken bones, including in the vertebrae (bones of the spine), which can cause a stooped posture and loss of height. While low bone mass and osteoporosis are more common in women, they can occur in men, too. Be sure to talk with your physician about what you can do to prevent osteoporosis. Oftentimes, the first sign you have it is a broken bone.
- Your Heart As you age, your large arteries become stiffer, a condition called arteriosclerosis, contributing to higher blood pressure. The walls of the arteries also tend to accumulate a buildup of fatty deposits, called plaques, which also harden and narrow the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart. The buildup of fatty deposits is called atherosclerosis, and a buildup of plaque in the arteries leading to your heart is known as coronary artery disease and is a major risk factor for heart attack. While not all of the heart and blood vessel changes associated with aging can be controlled, following a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity can almost always help to keep your arteries and heart healthier for longer.
- Your Brain It’s common for people to experience some slight forgetfulness as they get older, and their ability to process new information or to multitask may slow with age as well, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, when confusion and memory problems go beyond the occasional “senior moment,” that’s not normal, and you should have it checked out by a medical professional. You could be in the early stages of dementia, but you could also have a treatable condition that’s affecting your brain.
- Your Digestive System As you age, your digestive tract slows down and doesn’t contract as often as it did when you were younger, which can lead to constipation, stomach pain, and feelings of nausea. Many medications also cause or contribute to constipation. To prevent these digestive problems, the Mayo Clinic recommends following a diet that’s rich in fiber, drinking plenty of fluids, keeping as active as possible, and doing your best to manage stress.
- Your Senses As you age, you may notice that your five senses — hearing, vision, taste, smell, and touch — aren’t quite as sharp as they once were, according to Medline Plus. Changes within the structures of the ear may cause you some degree of hearing loss and may also affect your sense of balance. The sharpness of your vision may dull, and you may need reading glasses. You may start to lose your sense of taste, thanks to a decrease in your number of taste buds. Consequently, flavors may not seem as distinct to you, nor as vivid. Your sense of smell may weaken with age due to decreased mucus production and a loss of nerve endings in the nose. You may also find that your sensitivity to touch, pain, pressure, and vibration is reduced — although some people become more sensitive to touch because of thinning skin.
- Your Teeth and Gums The tough enamel that protects your teeth from decay can start to wear away over the years, leaving you susceptible to cavities. Moreover, per the American Dental Association (ADA), the nerves in your teeth can become smaller with age, leaving you less sensitive to pain and potentially delaying a diagnosis of cavities or cracks in the tooth’s outer surface. And according to an article published in June 2017 in the American Journal of Public Health, more than half of people over age 65 have moderate or severe gum disease; the same article states that around 400 commonly used medications can cause dry mouth, which heightens the risk of oral diseases.
- Your Skin As you age, your skin loses its elasticity and may start to sag and wrinkle. However, the more you protected your skin from sun damage and smoking when you were younger, the better your skin will look as you get older. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen and moisturizer as the two most important anti-aging products you should be using. Wearing a hat with a brim will also protect the skin on your scalp and face. Start protecting your skin now to prevent further damage and to lower your risk of skin cancer.
- Your Sexual Function After menopause, when menstruation stops and estrogen levels drop, many women experience physical changes, including reduced vaginal lubrication. Per the North American Menopause Society, these changes can also reduce your sex drive. For men, advancing age is often accompanied by erectile dysfunction — though, as the American Sexual Health Association points out, this is not a normal part of aging and may indicate an underlying medical issue or occur as a side effect of a medication. Fortunately, many of these physical issues can be readily treated or, if not, accommodated by open-minded partners who are willing to experiment.
While many of these bodily changes are a natural part of aging, they don’t have to slow you down. What’s more, there’s a lot you can do to protect your body and keep it as healthy as possible.
10 Steps to Aging Well (and Feeling Great!)
Ideally, you’ll have already been practicing healthy habits throughout your life. But even if you haven’t, it’s never too late to start taking proactive steps to maintain and even improve your health. Small lifestyle changes can have a big impact, and adopting even a few of the habits listed here will start you on the right track:
1. Stay Physically Active for a Healthy Body and Mind
Keeping physically active can help offset many of the effects of aging. According to Medline Plus, exercising regularly can improve your balance, help keep you mobile, improve your mood by reducing feelings of anxiety and depression, and contribute to better cognitive functioning. It’s also an important part of managing some chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, breast and colon cancer, and osteoporosis.
Any exercise at all is better than none, says the CDC, which recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like swimming or taking a brisk walk) each week; you can further break this down into 30 active minutes a day for five days a week. It also recommends twice-weekly muscle-strengthening activities. You can find a list of CDC-approved physical activities here.
2. Stay Socially Active With Friends and Family and Within Your Community
Making the effort to interact with family and friends can have numerous benefits for your health. One article, published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences in January 2019, found that participants (all over 65) who reported higher levels of social activity were more likely to experience more positive moods, fewer negative feelings, and higher levels of physical activity.
If you don’t currently have an active social life, look for opportunities to reconnect with old friends or make new ones. Seek out like-minded others in church groups, volunteer activities, gyms, alumni groups, or any other group that corresponds to an interest of yours.
RELATED: The Healing Power of Friendship Grows With Age
3. Follow a Healthy, Well-Balanced Diet
To get the nutrition your body needs and lower your risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, make whole foods that are high in fiber and low in saturated fat the foundation of your diet. Following an eating plan like the Mediterranean diet can help you to achieve that goal. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes olive oil, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fish. It’s low in red meat, full-fat dairy products, and processed foods.
4. Don’t Neglect Yourself: Schedule Checkups and Stick to Them
Regular checkups with your doctor, dentist, eye doctor, and specialist healthcare providers are opportunities to catch problems early and treat them before they become bigger problems.
If you have one or more chronic medical conditions, take multiple medications, are experiencing memory or mobility issues, or have been recently hospitalized, you may want to schedule an appointment with a geriatrician, notes the American Association of Retired Persons. Geriatricians specialize in the care and treatment of older people. Following an initial consultation, they can refer you to other specialists, coordinate care and treatments for health issues, and help you create a care plan tailored to your needs.
5. Take All Medication as Directed by Your Doctor
It may seem like a no-brainer, but it bears repeating that you should always take any medication prescribed to you exactly as directed by your doctor (or doctors). However, it’s also worth doing a periodic medication review with your primary care doctor to discuss whether all of your prescriptions are still necessary. The more drugs you take, the harder it can be to remember when and how to take them all, and the higher your risk for adverse (negative) drug reactions as well as drug-drug interactions.
While you should almost never stop taking a drug without consulting your doctor first, it can pay to be proactive about reviewing the necessity of all the drugs you’ve been prescribed. And keep in mind that your pharmacist is another resource for information on drugs, drug side effects, and drug interactions.
RELATED: The Dangers of Pill Cutting and Skipped Doctor Visits
6. Limit Your Alcohol Consumption
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines advise that alcohol consumption be limited to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. However, a more recent report, published by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, advises that men limit their alcohol consumption to one drink per day, too.
The more recent advice is based on studies that show that the mortality risk associated with drinking alcohol is increased at levels above one drink per day on average for both men and women.
7. Quit Smoking to Lower Your Risk of Cancer and Heart Disease
If you’re a current smoker, you’ll want to quit as a matter of urgency: According to SmokeFree.gov, the health benefits of quitting smoking include lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and heart rate; a lower risk of cancer, diabetes, and lung damage; and stronger bones, muscles, and immune system.
8. Get the Sleep That Your Body Needs
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults over 65 get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night. As you age, you may notice that your sleep schedule shifts so that you are sleepier in the early evening and ready to wake earlier in the morning; this is not unusual, nor does it pose an issue so long as you continue to meet the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night. If you are experiencing chronic or acute insomnia, speak with your doctor, who can help you determine what’s keeping you awake and advise you on possible solutions.
9. Practice Good Dental Hygiene Every Day
To protect your teeth and gums, the ADA advises brushing your teeth twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush, flossing daily, and regularly cleaning any dentures you may wear. Not only will your teeth and gums be healthier with this routine, but preventing inflammation in your mouth through good dental hygiene can help you manage other chronic inflammatory conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, according to the American Academy of Periodontology.
10. Discuss Changes in Sexual Function With Your Doctor
If you are experiencing changes in your libido or sexual function that are having a negative impact on your sex life, talk to your doctor about it. The National Institute on Aging notes that help is available in the form of physical aids or medication, as well as in communication with your partner and exploring new avenues to physical and emotional intimacy. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a sex therapist, who can help you define what a satisfying sex life would look like for you and how to get there.
Warning Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore
It’s easy to blame a low mood or fatigue on aging, but oftentimes aging is not the direct cause of these woes. Feeling constantly exhausted or depressed is not normal at any age. If you’ve lost the energy or desire to engage in activities you once enjoyed, see your doctor for a checkup. You may be depressed or have another medical problem that needs prompt attention.
What are some other warning signs you shouldn’t ignore? Any of the following could indicate a major health problem and should be checked out by a medical professional:
- Abrupt weakness or dizziness
- Shortness of breath
- Pressure in your chest area
- Tingling or numbness, especially on just one side of your body
- Loss of balance or coordination
- Difficulty speaking or swallowing
- Excessive sweating
- Sudden vision loss or blurred vision
- Marked swelling, even when you don’t have any recent injuries
- Rapid weight loss
- Prolonged confusion
- Wounds that never seem to heal
With prompt medical attention, many people survive serious medical problems and even thrive afterward if they take it as an opportunity to double down on living healthfully and meaningfully.
Additional reporting by Laura McArdle.