Aging is a normal part of our lives. We go through the various stages of our life, and our body experiences different changes at different ages. Perhaps seeing the first strands of gray hair is one of the early signs of the inevitable process of aging. Our bodies change as we get older. We may notice a little more flesh around the waistline, or we start having trouble sleeping through the night and wake up feeling a little stiffer in the morning. Even with these changes, we slowly start adapting to our realities, but this does not mean that everything is a normal sign of aging.
It’s important to know what is part of normal aging and what is not. It is important to be aware of what signs and symptoms to ignore and what should serve as a warning sign to seek medical advice. Having any sudden change or feeling persistent pain can be a cause of concern and should be treated as a red flag.
The natural changes that take place in our cells as we age cause them to slow down or alter their capacity. Typically, people tend to reach the peak of their body functioning around the age of 30. After this, how rapidly you start noticing age-related changes in your strength, stamina, and sensory perceptions vary from person to person and depend on your personal health choices, genetics, and medical history.
There are many age-related complaints that are quite common, and most people go through them.1 However, some symptoms are not caused by the natural aging of the body, and it is important to be able to tell the difference.
Age Related Changes in Body: What’s Normal & What’s Not?
It is estimated that nearly a third of people who are 60 years or older experience some level of hearing loss. This condition is known as presbycusis and usually happens because of the loss of sensory receptors present in your inner ear.2,3
The condition usually begins with some sounds appearing to be muffled, and you may find it challenging to understand high-pitched voices. It is more common for men to have more hearing loss than women.
However, what is not a normal part of hearing loss is experiencing drainage from the ear, pain, or a rapid loss of hearing. These could be a sign of an infection or tumor. You should also let your doctor know if the hearing in one ear is much worse than the other ear.
Otherwise, if you just find that you do not hear quite as well as you used to in your 20s, it is a normal part of aging, and there is nothing to worry about. However, not being able to hear as well this week as what you did a few days back is not part of the normal aging process, and you should consider showing it to a doctor.4,5
By the time you reach your 40s, it is common for most people to be wearing reading glasses. Presbyopia is the term used to refer to the gradual loss of the ability of your eyes to focus on nearby objects. It is a natural process and a part of aging.6,7 Presbyopia causes the lens of the eye to become stiff, which does not let the eyes adjust to refocus from a far distance to near vision.
Cataracts, or clouding over of the lens, is another common eye problems people may experience as they age. Cataracts are more common when you enter your 60s. Long-term exposure to sunlight is known to increase the risk of developing cataracts. It is possible to correct cataracts through surgery in which the lens is replaced.8
While presbyopia and cataracts are normal conditions that affect the eye as you age, but there are certain vision problems that require attention. For example, if you notice that you have worse peripheral vision than your central vision or vice versa, you could have a serious eye problem that needs to be immediately addressed.
The condition of glaucoma is another problem that is not a natural part of aging and needs to be treated. Glaucoma occurs when the pressure in the eye increases. This can cause damage to the optic nerve.9
There are also two types of macular degeneration that affect the center of the retina in the eye, which can lead to a loss of your central vision.10 Age-related macular degeneration tends to get worse as you age, and it is one of the leading causes of severe and permanent vision loss in people over the age of 60. It is important to seek timely treatment for macular degeneration.
The bottom line about dealing with vision problems as you continue to age is to keep getting regular eye check-ups and to consult an ophthalmologist if you feel you are having vision loss or blurred vision. Having regular preventive eye checkups is especially important if you have a family history of macular degeneration or glaucoma or you have diabetes.
High Blood Pressure or Hypertension
The process of aging is not a disease. However, the various changes our body goes through as we age definitely makes us more vulnerable to many medical conditions. One such example is high blood pressure or essential hypertension. Essential hypertension is high blood pressure that does not really have a known secondary cause. It is sometimes also known as primary hypertension.11
While the exact cause of essential hypertension remains unknown, there are many factors that are believed to play a role in this condition, including:
- Salt intake
- Poor diet
- Lack of exercise
As you age, the blood vessels start losing their elasticity and become stiff. This stiffness is believed to be a significant contributing factor to high blood pressure in older adults.
Studies have found that more than half of people who are 60 years of age or older tend to have high blood pressure, with a systolic blood pressure reading of 130 mmHg over a diastolic reading of 80 mmHg or higher.12
Following a low-sodium diet, exercising regularly, and watching your weight can help prevent high blood pressure as you age.
Decrease in Stamina or Strength
One of the biggest drawbacks of aging is that we start losing muscle tissue with age. As our muscles become less toned, less flexible, and more rigid, it is normal to experience some reduction in overall strength and stamina. Stretching and weight training exercises can help improve your flexibility and strength, though this natural side effect of aging cannot be wholly counteracted.13
At the same time, our organs also begin to lose their extra reserve, and the walls of the heart become thicker. Arteries also get stiffer, and the heart rate starts slowing down with age. Aging of the heart is a big reason why it becomes more challenging to do vigorous exercise when we are older as compared to what we could do when we were in our 20s or 30s. However, maintaining a regular exercise regimen, especially aerobic exercises like walking, can help boost strength and stamina.
While all these are a normal part of aging, there is also reason to worry if you suddenly experience chest pain with nausea, dizziness, fainting or shortness of breath. These are possible signs that you have a heart attack. Changes in your heart rate can cause symptoms like unexplained fatigue, dizziness, and lightheadedness.14
Another cause of concern can be sarcopenia or muscle loss. While you will experience some amount of muscle loss as you age, but sarcopenia affects about ten percent of adults over the age of 50 years. Sarcopenia can have a dramatic effect on your quality of life and life expectancy.
After crossing middle age, adults tend to lose around three percent of their muscle strength on average every year. This restricts their ability to perform many day to day abilities and also stops them from doing vigorous exercises.15,16
The primary cause of sarcopenia is an imbalance between signals for muscle tear down and signals for muscle growth. While this is a natural cycle that keeps occurring, during aging, in some cases, the body may become resistant to the normal growth signals, thus tipping the scales in favor of muscle loss and catabolism, which refers to cell teardown processes.17
Sarcopenia can be accelerated by having a sedentary lifestyle, eating an unbalanced and unhealthy diet, inflammation, and severe stress. The early signs of sarcopenia include having difficulty in lifting familiar objects and feeling physically weaker. Losing weight without trying to is also a sign of sarcopenia. If you are experiencing any such symptoms without being able to identify a good reason behind them, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor.
Another reason for a decrease in strength and stamina could be anemia. It is estimated that one in ten people who are aged 65 or older have anemia, which is a condition characterized by a low level of red blood cells. Anemia can cause fatigue and also a wide range of underlying health conditions. Again, anemia should not be accepted as being an inevitable consequence of aging because the most common cause of anemia in the elderly is iron deficiency and chronic disease.18
Apart from fatigue, anemia can cause the following symptoms:
As you age, it becomes more common to have several co-existing causes of anemia. No matter what the underlying cause is, it is important to treat the condition.19
Some amount of momentary lapses of memory are normal are you get older, like forgetting where you put your keys or forgetting the name of someone you haven’t met in a while. Unless the forgetfulness starts disrupting your daily life, there is no need to panic with age-induced memory loss. Most older adults experience some amount of memory complaints, but that does not mean it is dementia or some medical condition.
The fact is that information processing by the brain starts slowing down as we get older, and the elderly tend to have more trouble multitasking. However, there is a lot of different types of cognitive function. For example, older adults are more likely to have more knowledge of the world than their younger counterparts.
However, there are some red flags you need to watch out for when it comes to memory and cognitive functions. The warning sign for dementia that is also related to Alzheimer’s disease is when you develop an inability to learn and retain any new information. The new guidelines for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease state that having problems with episodic memory can be a sign of mild cognitive impairment, which could serve as a precursor to Alzheimer’s in the future.20
However, memory loss is not the only symptom of Alzheimer’s, and people with Alzheimer’s usually have other cognitive deficits, including having trouble recognizing objects and with language. To diagnose Alzheimer’s, your doctor will look for the presence of certain biomarkers through an imaging test or by testing your cerebrospinal fluid.
If you have a family history of Alzheimer’s or if you are experiencing sudden memory problems, it is better to consult your doctor and get tested. Alzheimer’s disease rarely affects people younger than 65 years.21
You may not have a lot of control over what happens to your body as you grow older, but by taking care of yourself from an early age, you can ensure that you age in a healthy manner and reduce the possibility of contracting many lifestyle diseases. Remember that you can enjoy having good health and a healthier body even as you age, only by following a healthy lifestyle in your younger years. Eat a well-balanced and nutritious diet, exercise regularly, reduce your stress levels, and practice soothing activities like meditation and yoga can bring about many positive changes in your body. Taking care of yourself can not only lessen but also delay many of the natural changes your body goes through as you age.
- EPSTKIN, C.J., MARTIN, G.M., SCHULTZ, A.L. and MOTULSKYS, A.G., 1966. A review of its symptomatology, natural history, pathologic features, genetics and relationship to the natural aging process. Medicine, 45(3), pp.177-221.
- Villaume, W.A., Brown, M.H. and Darling, R., 1994. Presbycusis, communication, and older adults.
- Gates, G.A. and Mills, J.H., 2005. Presbycusis. The lancet, 366(9491), pp.1111-1120.
- Walling, A. and Dickson, G., 2012. Hearing loss in older adults. American family physician, 85(12), pp.1150-1156.
- Gopinath, B., Rochtchina, E., Wang, J.J., Schneider, J., Leeder, S.R. and Mitchell, P., 2009. Prevalence of age-related hearing loss in older adults: Blue Mountains Study. Archives of internal medicine, 169(4), pp.415-418.
- Cunha, C.C., Berezovsky, A., Furtado, J.M., Ferraz, N.N., Fernandes, A.G., Muñoz, S., Watanabe, S.S., Sacai, P.Y., Cypel, M., Mitsuhiro, M.H. and Morales, P.H., 2018.
- Presbyopia and ocular conditions causing near vision impairment in older adults from the Brazilian Amazon region. American journal of ophthalmology, 196, pp.72-81.
- Pellizzer, S.O.N.I.A. and Siderov, J., 1998. Assessment of vergence facility in a sample of older adults with presbyopia. Optometry and vision science: official publication of the American Academy of Optometry, 75(11), pp.817-821.
- Iroku-Malize, T. and Kirsch, S., 2016. Eye Conditions in Older Adults: Cataracts. FP essentials, 445, pp.17-23.
- Black, A.A., Wood, J.M., Lovie-Kitchin, J.E. and Newman, B.M., 2008. Visual impairment and postural sway among older adults with glaucoma. Optometry and vision science, 85(6), pp.489-497.
- Williams, R.A., Brody, B.L., Thomas, R.G., Kaplan, R.M. and Brown, S.I., 1998. The psychosocial impact of macular degeneration. Archives of ophthalmology, 116(4), pp.514-520.
- Staessen, J.A., Wang, J., Bianchi, G. and Birkenhäger, W.H., 2003. Essential hypertension. The Lancet, 361(9369), pp.1629-1641.
- Rigaud, A.S. and Forette, B., 2001. Hypertension in older adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 56(4), pp.M217-M225. Goodpaster, B.H., Park, S.W., Harris, T.B., Kritchevsky, S.B., Nevitt, M., Schwartz, A.V., Simonsick, E.M., Tylavsky, F.A., Visser, M. and Newman, A.B., 2006. The loss of skeletal muscle strength, mass, and quality in older adults: the health, aging and body composition study. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 61(10), pp.1059-1064.
- Bell, M., Lommel, T., Fischer, J.G., Lee, J.S., Reddy, S. and Johnson, M.A., 2009. Improved recognition of heart attack and stroke symptoms after a community-based intervention for older adults, Georgia, 2006-2007. Prev Chronic Dis, 6(2), p.A41.
- Angulo, J., El Assar, M. and Rodriguez-Manas, L., 2016. Frailty and sarcopenia as the basis for the phenotypic manifestation of chronic diseases in older adults. Molecular aspects of medicine, 50, pp.1-32.
- Kizilarslanoglu, M.C., Kuyumcu, M.E., Yesil, Y. and Halil, M., 2016. Sarcopenia in critically ill patients. Journal of anesthesia, 30(5), pp.884-890.
- Markofski, M.M., Dickinson, J.M., Drummond, M.J., Fry, C.S., Fujita, S., Gundermann, D.M., Glynn, E.L., Jennings, K., Paddon-Jones, D., Reidy, P.T. and Sheffield-Moore, M., 2015. Effect of age on basal muscle protein synthesis and mTORC1 signaling in a large cohort of young and older men and women. Experimental gerontology, 65, pp.1-7.
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- Jack Jr, C.R., Albert, M.S., Knopman, D.S., McKhann, G.M., Sperling, R.A., Carrillo, M.C., Thies, B. and Phelps, C.H., 2011. Introduction to the recommendations from the National Institute on Aging‐Alzheimer’s Association workgroups on diagnostic guidelines for Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s & dementia, 7(3), pp.257-262.
- Evans, D.A., Funkenstein, H.H., Albert, M.S., Scherr, P.A., Cook, N.R., Chown, M.J., Hebert, L.E., Hennekens, C.H. and Taylor, J.O., 1989. Prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in a community population of older persons: higher than previously reported. Jama, 262(18), pp.2551-2556.