What to Expect as You Age

You know that aging means changes. Find out just exactly what occurs with each part of your body as you grow older.

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It's never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle. You can't stop the aging process, but you can minimize its impact by making healthy lifestyle choices.

You expect the wrinkles and gray hairs, and while the exterior changes are noticeable there are even more changes going on inside as you age. Here's a list of common aging-related changes, with some suggestions on what you can do to promote good health.

Cardiovascular system

Over time, your heart muscle becomes less efficient. In addition, hardened fatty deposits may form on the inner walls of your arteries (atherosclerosis) and your blood vessels will lose some of their elasticity. This can cause your heart to work even harder leading to high blood pressure (hypertension) and other cardiovascular problems.

To keep your heart healthy you should get daily physical activity. Walking, swimming or other physical activities will help your heart (see our Exercise for Seniors section). Eat a healthy diet, including plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains (see our Eating/Diet section for nutrition information).

Bones, joints and muscles

Bones tend to shrink in size and density becoming more susceptible to fracture. You might even become a bit shorter. Muscles generally lose strength and flexibility, and you may become less coordinated or have trouble balancing.

To strengthen bones include plenty of calcium and vitamin D in your diet. Build bone density with weight-bearing activities, such as walking. Consider strength training at least twice a week, which increases bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. Building muscle also protects your joints and helps you maintain flexibility and balance.

Digestive system

Constipation is more common. A low-fiber diet, not drinking enough fluids and lack of exercise all contribute to constipation. Diuretics and iron supplements may also contribute to constipation. Medical conditions, including diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome, may increase constipation as well.

To help avoid constipation, drink plenty of water and other fluids and eat a healthy diet. Include lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also include physical activity in your daily routine. Finally, don't ignore the urge to have a bowel movement. When it’s time to go, go.

Bladder and urinary tract

Loss of bladder control (urinary incontinence) is common. Health problems such as obesity, frequent constipation and chronic cough contribute to incontinence — as can menopause, for women, and an enlarged prostate, for men.

If you feel you are losing control of your bladder try to urinate more often. If you're overweight, lose weight. Pelvic muscle exercises might help, too. Simply tighten your pelvic muscles as if you're stopping your stream of urine. Try at least three sets of 10 repetitions of pelvic tightening exercises a day.

Memory

As you get older the number of cells (neurons) in your brain decreases resulting in less efficient memory. There are many things other than aging that can cause memory problems including depression, dementia, side effects of drugs and alcohol, strokes and head injury. If you sometimes forget names, you're probably okay, but a memory problem is serious when it affects your daily living.

To help keep your memory as sharp as possible, include physical activity in your daily routine and eat a healthy diet. It also helps to stay mentally active by playing games that require concentration. Try crossword puzzles, soduku or even some of the games that can be played on a computer or cell phone. Plus, it helps to stay involved in conversations with other people by keeping socially active.

Eyes and ears

You will find that your eyes are less able to produce tears, your retinas get thinner and your lenses gradually become less clear. Focusing on close objects may become more difficult. Your hearing may also dim. You may have difficulty hearing high frequencies (children’s voices) or following a conversation in a crowded room.

It is important to schedule regular vision and hearing exams. Once your vision and hearing are tested follow your doctor's advice about glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids and other corrective devices. To prevent further damage, wear sunglasses when you're outdoors and use earplugs when you're around loud machinery or other loud noises.

Teeth

Aging often means your mouth may begin to feel drier and your gums may recede. With less saliva to wash away bacteria your teeth and gums become slightly more vulnerable to decay and infection. Your teeth also may darken slightly and become more brittle and break easier.

Throughout your life it is important to brush your teeth twice a day and to clean between your teeth. Use dental floss and floss at least once a day, plus rinse your mouth often. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day is also important. Visit your dentist or dental hygienist for regular dental checkups.

Skin

Your skin thins and becomes less elastic. You may notice that you bruise more easily. Decreased production of natural oils may make your skin drier and more wrinkled. Age spots can occur, and small growths called skin tags are more common.

Care for your skin by bathing in warm (not hot) water while using mild soap and then moisturizing when you are done. When you're outdoors, use sunscreen and wear protective clothing. When it concerns your skin it is also important to hydrate by drinking water throughout the day.

Weight

Managing a healthy weight is more difficult as you get older (see our section on Managing Weight). Muscle mass tends to decrease with age, which leads to an increase in fat. Since fat tissue burns fewer calories than muscle, you may need to reduce the number of calories in your diet or increase your physical activity simply to maintain your current weight.

The best way to manage your weight is to include physical activity in your daily routine and to eat a healthy diet. As you age you can start decreasing portions as you might not need to eat as much as you used to. National guidelines suggest that 30 minutes of exercise daily is a must. So take a brisk walk, jog or cycle every day as well.

Sexuality

Your sexual needs, patterns and performance may change. Illness or medication may affect your ability to enjoy sex. For women, vaginal dryness can make sex uncomfortable. For men, impotence may become a concern.

As you notice changes share your needs and concerns with your partner. Be open with your doctor, too. He or she may offer specific treatment suggestions.