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Why Do We Shrink As We Age?

Crushed vertebrae and degenerated disks are just two of the things you have to look forward to.

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Ben Taub

author

Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

Benjamin holds a Master's degree in anthropology from University College London and has worked in the fields of neuroscience research and mental health treatment.

Freelance Writer

Edited by Laura Simmons
Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

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Elderly shrinking

It's normal to lose a few centimeters in height by the time we're elderly.

Image credit: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock.com

Hang around any supermarket for long enough and you’re sure to be approached by a mature shopper with a request to pass them a top-shelf item. And while it may seem impossible to imagine our future selves experiencing similar grocery woes, the reality is that your spinal column can start shrinking from as early as your 30s, leaving you staring up helplessly at those high-stacked objects in your later years.

The causes of this gradual demise are varied, with perhaps the most obvious being an increase in spinal curvature. Age-related slouching is known as kyphosis, and occurs as our muscle fibers dwindle over the years. As a result, the muscles surrounding the spine become weaker and we start to lose the battle against gravity, eventually becoming unable to stand up straight.

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Fortunately, however, kyphosis is not an inescapable destiny, and can be avoided by maintaining an active lifestyle and getting regular exercise. Ideally, this is something we should all be aiming at throughout our lives, and it’s much easier to avoid kyphosis by staying active as we age than to reverse it by taking up exercise once we’re elderly.

And while slouching isn’t the same as shrinking, other age-related processes do cause us to literally become smaller. Among the most significant drivers of this shortening is a reduction in bone density, which is believed to be triggered by decreases in estrogen and testosterone as we get older.

Vitamin D deficiencies and a decrease in renal calcium absorption in older age can exacerbate this process, sometimes leading to a bone disease known as osteoporosis. As the bones become weaker and more porous, the vertebrae that make up our spine can become crushed under our own weight, producing breaks that are known as compression fractures.

Surprisingly, most compression fractures are pain-free, which is why we tend not to notice as our spines become increasingly compact over time. However, as these fractures accumulate and more of our vertebrae get squished, that top shelf may become more and more difficult to reach.

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This effect is often compounded by the degeneration of spinal disks, which sit between our vertebrae and act as shock absorbers. From our 30s onwards, these disks can start to dry out, becoming less and less firm as they lose water.

With 23 disks in our spinal column, it only takes a few of these to decrease in height by a couple of millimeters before we start to notice ourselves shrinking. 

Unfortunately, stretching probably won’t make you any taller, although living a healthy lifestyle can prevent excessive shrinking. A diet rich in vitamin D and calcium, for instance, can help bones stay young and minimize the risk of compression fractures, while regular exercise also keeps bones strong and reduces the possibility of developing osteoporosis.

The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.  

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All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current. 


ARTICLE POSTED IN

healthHealth and Medicinehealthhealth
  • tag
  • aging,

  • bones,

  • Spine,

  • health,

  • skeleton,

  • height,

  • muscles,

  • old age

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