Ageing is the accumulation of changes in an organism or object over time. Ageing in humans refers to a multidimensional process of physical, psychological, and social change. Some dimensions of ageing grow and expand over time, while others decline. Reaction time, for example, may slow with age, while knowledge of world events and wisdom may expand. Research shows that even late in life potential exists for physical, mental, and social growth and development. Ageing is an important part of all human societies reflecting the biological changes that occur, but also reflecting cultural and societal conventions. Age is usually measured in full years — and months for young children. A person’s birthday is often an important event. Roughly 100,000 people worldwide die each day due to age-related causes.
The term “ageing” is somewhat ambiguous. Distinctions may be made between “universal ageing” (age changes that all people share) and “probabilistic ageing” (age changes that may happen to some, but not all people as they grow older, such as the onset of type two diabetes. Chronological ageing, referring to how old a person is, is arguably the most straightforward definition of ageing and may be distinguished from “social ageing” (society’s expectations of how people should act as they grow older) and “biological ageing” (an organism’s physical state as it ages). There is also a distinction between “proximal ageing” (age-based effects that come about because of factors in the recent past) and “distal ageing” (age-based differences that can be traced back to a cause early in person’s life, such as childhood poliomyelitis)
Genetic and Environmental Factors
The Ageing process depends on a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Recognizing that every individual has his or her own unique genetic makeup and environment, which interact with each other, helps us understand why the Ageing process can occur at such different rates in different people. Overall, genetic factors seem to be more powerful than environmental factors in determining the large differences among people in Ageing and lifespan. There are even some specific genetic disorders that speed up the Ageing process, such as Hutchinson-Gilford, Werner’s, and Down syndromes. However, many environmental conditions, such as the quality of health care that you receive, have a substantial effect on Ageing. A healthy lifestyle is an especially important factor in healthy Ageing and longevity. These environmental factors can significantly extend lifespan.
Behaviors of a Healthy Lifestyle
o Not smoking
o Drinking alcohol in moderation
o Getting adequate rest
o Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables
o Coping with stress
o Having a positive outlook
Cellular Changes Associated with Ageing
Ageing causes functional changes in cells. For example, the rate at which cells multiply tends to slow down as we age. Certain cells which are important for our immune system to work properly (called T-cell lymphocytes) also decrease with age. In addition, age causes changes in our responses to environmental stresses or exposures, such as ultraviolet light, heat, insufficient oxygen, poor nutrition, and toxins (poisons) among others.
Age also interferes with an important process called apoptosis, which programs cells to self-destruct or die at appropriate times. This process is necessary for tissues to remain healthy, and it is especially important in slowing down immune responses once an infection has been cleared from the body.
Different diseases that are common in elderly people can affect this process in different ways. For example, cancer results in a loss of apoptosis. The cancer cells continue to multiply and invade or take over surrounding tissue, instead of dying as originally programmed. Other diseases may cause cells to die too early. In Alzheimer’s disease, a substance called amyloid builds up and causes the early death of brain cells, which results in a progressive loss of memory and other brain functions. Toxins produced as byproducts of nerve-cell transmissions are also thought to be involved in the death of nerve cells in Parkinson’s disease.
Bodily Changes Associated with Ageing
Our bodies normally change in appearance as we age.
Changes in Height
We all lose height as we age, although when the height loss begins and how quickly it progresses vary quite a bit among different people. Generally, our height increases until our late forties and then decreases about two inches by age 80. The reasons for height loss include the following:
• changes in posture
• changes in the growth of vertebrae (the bones that make up the spine)
• a forward bending of the spine
• compression of the discs between the vertebrae
• increased curvature of the hips and knees
• decreased joint space in the trunk and extremities
• joint changes in the feet
• flattening of the arches
The length of the bones in our legs does not change much.
Changes in Weight
In men, body weight generally increases until their mid-fifties; then it decreases, with weight being lost faster in their late sixties and seventies. In women, body weight increases until the late sixties and then decreases at a rate slower than that of men.
People that live in less technologically developed societies do not show this pattern of weight change. This suggests that reduced physical activity and changes in eating habits may be causes of the change in body weight rather than the Ageing process.
Changes in Body Composition
The proportion of the body that is made up of fat doubles between age 25 and age 75. Exercise programs may prevent or reverse much of the proportional decrease in muscle mass and increase in total body fat. This change in body composition is important to consider in nutritional planning and level of activity. The change in body composition also has an important effect on how the body handles various drugs. For example, when our body fat increases, drugs that are dissolved in fatty tissues remain in the body much longer than when our body was younger and more muscular.
Other Changes with Ageing
Normal Ageing in the absence of disease is a remarkably benign process. In other words, our body can remain healthy as we age. Although our organs may gradually lose some function, we may not even notice these changes except during periods of great exertion or stress. We may also experience slower reaction times.
Normal Ageing and Disease
Ageing and disease are related in subtle and complex ways. Several conditions that were once thought to be part o
f normal Ageing have now been shown to be due to disease processes that can be influenced by lifestyle. For example, heart and blood vessel diseases are more common in people who eat a lot of meat and fat. Similarly, cataract formation in the eye largely depends on the amount of exposure to direct sunlight.
We should remember that there is a range of individual response to Ageing. Biologic and chronologic ages are not the same. In addition, body systems do not age at the same rate within any individual. For example, you might have severe arthritis or loss of vision while the function of your heart or kidneys is excellent. Even those Ageing changes that are considered “usual” or “normal” are not inevitable consequences of Ageing.
Changes in the Regulation of Body Systems
The way our body regulates certain systems changes with age. Some examples are listed below.
o Progressive changes in the heart and blood vessels interfere with your body’s ability to control blood pressure.
o Your body cannot regulate its temperature as it could when you were younger. This can result in dangerously low body temperature from prolonged exposure to the cold or in heat stroke if the outside temperature is too high.
o There may be Ageing -related changes in your body’s ability to develop a fever in response to an infection.
o The regulation of the amount and makeup of body fluids is slowed down in healthy older persons. Usual (resting) levels of the hormones that control the amount of body fluids are unchanged, but problems in fluid regulation commonly develop during illness or other stress. Also, elderly people don’t feel as thirsty after water deprivation as they did when younger.
What do these age-related changes in our body systems mean?
o First, with advancing age, we become less like each other biologically, so our health care needs to be more individualized.
o Body systems that can be minimally affected by age are often profoundly influenced by lifestyle behaviors such as cigarette smoking, physical activity, and nutritional intake, and by circumstances such as financial means.
o Finally, it’s helpful to consider ahead of time our possible choices in case certain situations arise. For example, if you become less physically able to take part in an athletic activity you did before, is there a different activity you might enjoy? Are there things you might like to do to keep your mind active? More serious situations to consider might include death of a spouse, or if you find your abilities becoming more and more limited. Have you discussed how you would like to handle such situations and your wishes with your family?
It is important to remember that the ability to learn and adjust continues throughout life and is strongly influenced by interests, activities, and motivation. With years of rich experience and reflection, we can rise above our own circumstances. Old age, despite the physical limitations, can be a time of variety, creativity, and fulfillment.
Protect an Ageing Body
Start to protect your body and prepare for the Ageing process today, no matter what age you are. Developing good eating and exercise habits early in life will carry you through your twilight years with energy and vitality to spare. Important habits include regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and developing an active mind. Limit your consumption of alcohol and refined carbohydrates in favor of whole grain, nutritious choices that provide your body and brain with the fuel they need to thrive. Avoid saturated fat and processed sugars as they increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes. Stay hydrated and avoids soda as it saps calcium from your body and leaves you prone to broken bones later in life.
Compound the benefits of a healthy diet with at least 4 hours of exercise each week. Recent studies have suggested that some types of exercise are more beneficial than others for cognitive ability, but all exercise is certain to lower your risk for heart disease and obesity. Exercise increases your blood circulation, which increases blood flow to your brain, nourishing the organ and promoting healthy functioning. With exercise, researchers have generally found that more is better and scientists and doctors alike encourage people to get as much exercise as possible without putting yourself at risk for injury.
An active mind can be a difficult thing to quantify but generally means that you are always challenging yourself and learning new things. Reading, engaging in a diversity of conversations and continually exposing yourself to new experiences are all helpful in cultivating an active mind. Learn a new sport, listen to a new genre of music, take a continuing education class at your local community college or start a book club with your friends. The most important part may be continually switching it up so that your mind stays engaged, which can stimulate new neuron firing patterns and extend your mental prowess.
The following steps may also help you in this regard.
Several sets of clinical trials and research compilations recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine reinforce the belief that exercise is an important element in warding off dementia and promoting cognitive abilities. Researchers in British Columbia found that resistance training is most helpful in promoting cognitive skills such as memory, decision-making and conflict resolution skills.
In a separate study conducted in Germany, researchers found that after two years of regular cardiovascular exercise elderly study participants were half as likely to have developed dementia than their less active counterparts. It is believed that regular exercise promotes blood flow to the brain and may stimulate nerve-ending growth.
2. Eat well.
Include lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and omega 3 acids in your diet. Concentrate on antioxidant-packed produce like spinach, garlic and blueberries. The antioxidants fight free radicals in your system and slow down the Ageing process. Generally the more colorful a fruit or vegetable the higher its concentration of antioxidants, so try to include five colors in your diet each day.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, make fish or flax seeds a regular part of your diet. Both foods supply omega 3, a fatty acid that has been linked to healthy brain function. Digest fats in the form of seeds, olive oil, avocados and nuts. Regular absorption of unsaturated fat is essential to healthy brain function and in addition, nuts, seeds and certain oils are a good source of vitamin E, thought to ward off Alzheimer’s. Eat every three to four hours to provide steady fuel for your brain and body functions.
3. Drink well.
Fill up on water, coffee, tea and fresh squeezed juices. Leave sugar-packed soda, pre-prepared juice and most kinds of alcohol at the store. Water aids in food digestion and helps flush toxins out of your system. Coffee and caffeinated tea have antioxidant powers that increase cognitive functioning. Herbal teas contain compounds that ease digestion, calm frazzled nerves and boost the immune system. Fresh squeezed juice, in moderate amounts, contains a supercharge of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
In contrast sugar-laden juice, soda and alcohol induce high blood pressure, weight gain and diabetes. Indulge in these beverage choices only occasionally to promote a healthy lifestyle.
4. Never stop learning.
While there has been no direct link between activities like cross
word puzzles, jigsaw puzzles or Sudoku and cognitive improvement, it is widely accepted that continuously challenging your mind leads to stronger cognitive function.
Robin Nixon, writing for Live Science, attributed this relationship to the “use it or lose it” theory, stating that the same way that exercise keeps our bodies fit and nimble, new thought processes keep our minds flexible. She points out that there are many ways to exercise and engage your mind and suggests individuals focus on the activities that they enjoy most.
5. Don’t stress.
Stress is toxic. It makes you sick, it’s bad for your heart and it may even impair your brain function. In December 2007, the journal for the Association for Psychological Science reported that “stress hormones inhibit neuron growth in parts of the hippocampus” which results in memory impairments. They also reported that stress appears to be cumulative, meaning that the effects on your health will worsen over time.
Learn to manage the stress in your life today through activities such as deep breathing (the fight-or-flight response triggered by stress speeds respiration), journal writing, effective problem management and light reading.
6. Record your health.
Stay on top of all recommended health testing so that you can handle problems in a proactive manner. Schedule regular bone density tests, cholesterol tests and eye exams. Monitor your blood pressure. Men should have prostate exams and women should have mammograms and regular pap smears to detect cancerous cells in these potential problem areas early. Keep a health journal so that you can be clear about symptoms and concerns at doctor’s visits.
Be Happy – Ageing is Not a Problem.