5 Most Surprising Age-related Health Changes

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5 Most Surprising Age-related Health Changes

Aging is inevitable. As our bodies carry us through life, they absorb the brunt of our experiences -- working long hours, enjoying healthy and unhealthy food, recovering from sickness, and even having and caring for kids.

With age, the cells in our bodies senesce, meaning they become less equipped to repair and replicate [source: Kahn]. Ultimately, that process -- along with our genetics and environment -- helps give rise to many of the age-related changes humans typically experience.

Whether you dread the physical and emotional burdens of growing older, age-related issues aren't all undesirable and they often affect some people more than others.

We'll learn about a few of these surprising changes associated with getting older and how they alter the body and mind. Since no one has the same experience, it's important to note that people's journeys through age differ greatly.

First, we'll look at hormones -- they catapult us through childhood and teen life, and continue to surprise us as we age.

Sex and Aging

The desire for sex doesn't have to decrease with old age. Hormonal changes and symptoms of other health problems might stand in the way for some, though.

5: Hormones Still Wreak Havoc

If you think the hormone upheavals of adolescence are things of the past, you might be surprised to learn hormones still influence the body as it ages.

Menopause, or the natural process by which women generally between the ages of 45 and 65 experience shifts in hormone production that limits their ability to reproduce, causes many changes in the body [source: U.S. National Library of Medicine]. Hot flashes and skin flushing are usually expected, but some women are less prepared for the effects menopause has on their sex lives. Surprisingly, these hormone changes alter women's ability to become sexually aroused and may affect their emotions and memory.

Men aren't off the hook, either. With age, their bodies' ability to produce testosterone slightly wanes, which can result in reduced sex drive and psychological changes usually absent during young age [source: MedlinePlus].

Hormones can also alter both sexes' response to sickness, making it harder to fight off certain pathogens that younger bodies can handle.

Is the risk of falling higher in old age? The answer may surprise you. Venture to the following page to learn more.

Staving off Age-related Injury

Doctors recommend maintaining a weight-bearing exercise regimen to help decrease an older person's chance of injury from falling. Also, ensuring there's enough calcium and vitamin C in the diet, getting screened for osteoporosis -- a condition resulting in thinning of bone tissue and density -- and making sure medicine combinations don't result in bone loss are a few more ways to stave off age-related injuries [sources: CDC; U.S. National Library of Medicine].

4: Balance and Falling Become Serious Problems

Older individuals express fears of falling, and it turns out these instincts are well warranted -- the consequences are more dire and surprising than you think.

With age, the structures in a person's inner ear deteriorate, which not only affects hearing but degrades sense of balance. The semicircular canal in the inner ear helps maintain spatial orientation, so as this structure ages and the eardrum thickens, it throws off the ear's ability to send accurate balance messages to the brain. As a result, people feel less stable and are more likely to fall.

In addition, falling becomes increasingly dangerous for people as they age. Among people 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths and nonfatal hospital visits [source: CDC]. Aging people's decreased bone density and muscle mass give rise to their vulnerability to injury and frailty. Breaks and fractures of the hip, spine, pelvis, legs bones and lower arm bones occur most frequently from falls.

Which age-related changes affect eating and sleep? Find out more on the next page.

3: Metabolism and Sleep Woes

No matter how much food you can get away with eating in your youth, a slowing metabolism in your older years will stop you dead in your tracks. Surprisingly, a person's metabolism starts slowing down around the age of 20 [source: Medline Plus].

Torpid metabolism increases with age, which is why its effects accumulate over time. A slowed metabolism makes it easier to pack on pounds and bolsters risks for health problems associated with weight gain, such as heart disease and diabetes. This is why doctors monitor cholesterol and blood pressure frequently in older patients, even if they've been eating the same things for years without harm. As you can imagine, metabolism issues also make weight loss and gain harder for individuals who are overweight and underweight. Metabolism isn't known to be associated with urinary or bowel problems; rather these issues result from underlying health problems and muscles in the digestive system growing weaker with age [source: Mayo Clinic staff].

With age, you also might find it harder to get the sleep you need. Contrary to what some believe, older adults still need between seven and eight hours of sleep per day [source: American Academy of Family Physicians]. Our bodies' circadian rhythms and sleep cycles get thrown off with age for many reasons, including napping and insomnia.

But like other health-related changes we've discussed, hormones play a large role in metabolism and sleep-cycle adjustments. For sleep in particular, scientists think a decreased production in growth hormones and a sleep-related hormone called melatonin cause this age-related trend.

Oral health matters with age, too -- dentures or not. Head over to the next page to read more.

2: Teeth: Keep or Lose?

Despite being bombarded with advertisements about dentures, the truth is many people maintain their natural teeth in old age. In fact, more people than ever before are in a position to keep their natural teeth [source: CDC].

Advances in oral health care, education and personal habits probably account for this trend. But for people who naturally lose their teeth or live with advanced tooth decay, it's perfectly normal to want dentures and even advisable to get them if they enhance the ability to chew food and maintain confidence.

Like bones in the body, teeth lose their density and strength with age. Gum diseases can also cause tooth loss, resulting in lower self confidence and quality of life for older people who don't seek medical treatment. Dental care in old age differs greatly among socioeconomic class and race, as some people lack adequate dental insurance to meet their health needs.

Although tooth loss isn't nearly as common as in previous decades, people may be surprised to learn that they might not be able to enjoy the same crisp or crunchy foods that frequented their diets in years prior.

There's more to being wise than you might think. The age-related change on the next page is a benefit to older people and society at large.

Age-related Mental Health Issues

Wisdom aside, aging populations also experience negative changes in mental health. Dementia -- or a range of symptoms affecting memory and cognitive function -- can be an increasing problem in addition to the risk of developing depression or anxiety disorders [source: American Psychological Association].

1: Wisdom Happens

Although aging can be stressful, many people consider themselves happier and more sentimental later in life after they retire and have fewer responsibilities. Whether it's moving out of a cumbersome house or witnessing children or grandchildren transition into the "real world," seniors are generally more relaxed than their younger counterparts.

In addition, research validates the idea that wisdom increases with age. One study suggests that older people possess a greater theory of mind, or the ability to gauge the intentions of others, than younger people despite proficiency at physical tasks worsening [source: Happé et al.]. Another analysis places wisdom high on the list of factors that enrich an aging person's relationships and outlook on life [source: Ardelt].

While life's hardships and lessons seem hard to accept, the ability to learn from and endure them help shape one's attitude later in life -- a surprising fact to those who expect their older years will be worse than their younger ones.

Check out the next page for more resources on age-related issues.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesSources
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  • American Psychological Association. "Older Adults' Health and Age-Related Changes: Psychological Problems of Older Americans." 2011. (May 4, 2011).http://www.apa.org/pi/aging/resources/guides/older.aspx
  • Ardelt, Monika. "Antecedents and Effects of Wisdom in Old Age: A Longitudinal Perspective on Aging Well." Research on Aging. 22, 4. 360-394. July 2000. (May 4, 2011).http://roa.sagepub.com/content/22/4/360.short
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Falls Among Older Adults: An Overview." Dec. 8, 2010. (May 4, 2011).http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Falls/adultfalls.html
  • Happé, Francesca, Winner, Ellen, & Brownell, Hiram. "The Getting of Wisdom: Theory of Mind in Old Age." Developmental Psychology. 34, 2. 358-362. 1998. (May 4, 2011).http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/34/2/358/
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  • Kids Health. "What are Dentures?" October 2010. (May 4, 2011).http://kidshealth.org/kid/grownup/getting_older/dentures.html
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Urinary Incontinence." Mayo Clinic. June 27, 2009. (May 4, 2011).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/urinary-incontinence/DS00404/DSECTION=causes
  • Medline Plus. "Aging Changes in Hormone Production." May 2, 2011. (May 4, 2011).http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/004000.htm
  • MedlinePlus. "Aging Changes in the Male Reproductive System." May 2, 2011. (May 19, 2011).http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/004017.htm
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Menopause." Sept. 11, 2010. (May 4, 2011).http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001896/
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Osteoporosis." Nov. 8, 2010. (May 4, 2011).http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001400/
  • Vargas, Clemencia, Kramarow, Ellen, & Yellowitz, Janet. "The Oral Health of Older Americans." National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 2001. (May 4, 2011).http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ahcd/agingtrends/03oral.pdf
  • WebMD. "Sex and Aging." (May 4, 2011).http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/guide/sex-aging