If we talk about well aging, we need to define what that actually means. And while this definition will be slightly different for everyone, there are a few key components that are part of the aging process that we all need to be aware of. (More info: Recent realizations about the importance of well aging)
After all aging happens to all of us every day, it isn’t that we have a choice.
So which main problems do we face while aging?
Despite my love for skincare, I am not going to talk about changes in your face and I am not even going to mention UV damage as the main factor of external aging today. (More info: Why UVA protection is important)
Age-related loss of muscle mass
If you ever have been bed-ridden over a longer period of time, you know how quickly you lose muscle mass even as a young person. It is a use it or lose it situation no matter your age. Once you reach your 30s though, your muscle mass starts to decline by around 1% per year even if your activity levels stay the same. Which at first doesn’t sound too much, but it adds up. By the age of 80, you’d have lost around 40% of what you had before. Depending on which level of physical fitness you started from, that might mean your ability to be mobile and active could be severely hindered. The medical term for this is Sarcopenia.
Sarcopenia is a syndrome characterized by progressive and generalized loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength and it is strictly correlated with physical disability, poor quality of life, a higher risk for needing institutionalized care and death. Risk factors for sarcopenia include age, gender (with women having a higher risk) and level of physical activity.
So you see, loss in muscle isn’t only a cosmetic problem making you look less “ripped”, no, your muscles are important for keeping you mobile and for keeping your balance. The less muscle you have, the bigger your risk of falling.
Age-related loss of bone density
Again, losing a defined amount of bone mass, around 1% per year, is considered normal once you are in your 40s. This means that over time, your bones do break more easily, which puts you more at risk from falling.
Bone density isn’t everything though, the bone structure plays a huge role in how well your bones hold up too.
If you lose more bone mass than that, if your bone structure is weak or if both occurs, you are at risk for osteoporosis, the medical term for bones that don’t hold up as well as they should and, in the end stage, can break even if there was no relevant trauma, for example simply from the weight of your body when sitting. This is again not a cosmetic problem, but very much affects your quality of life and your means to stay active.
Age-related loss of brain tissue
The next thing we lose is brain volume and weight, round about 5% for each decade after 40. Which isn’t per se a problem, as when it comes to the brain size truly doesn’t matter, but still we see a decline in memory function and an increased risk of dementia with age. There are several possible explanations for that, like vascular damage with cell death, changes in the transmitter system of the brain and changes in the neuronal structure, and further studies are needed to get a better understanding, but what we can say right now that we again have a use it or lose it situation: Our brain is able to remodel and rebuild up until old age, so exposing ourselves to new concepts and tasks will help keep us mentally flexible. I will touch on that in my upcoming blog post on meditation. (More info: Can you rejuvenate your brain? The benefits of meditation for well aging)
Age-related increase in deadly diseases
Age is the primary risk factor for many chronic diseases like cardiovascular diseases, metabolic diseases or cancer. Again there are several possible explanations, one being a systemic inflammation of unknown origin, another being changes in the cells we produce or accumulated damage done to the DNA.
This is sadly not something we can counteract completely by living a healthy lifestyle, but a risk that inherently comes with aging and affects something we call the burden of disease or the amount of years lost living in an ideal healthy state until old age as opposed to living with health implications due to health issues. (More info: Can you eat your way to healthy skin?)
Age-related loneliness and depression
This might sound like an afterthought, but it is actually not. With an increased awareness for mental health also came an increased awareness of mental health issues in the elderly, with depression being identified as a major problem.
But even if we look beyond depression as a medical term, as we age we often experience loneliness due to divorce, death and the children moving out, and this age-related loneliness seems to increase the risk for early mortality as much as obesity does.
Same goes for a low purpose in life, with people reporting a low purpose of life being twice as likely to die within the next five years than those reporting a high level of purpose.
If you want to get a vote in the next Ask Doctor Anne Topic, Ingredient Spotlight or product I review, don’t forget you can head over to my Patreon account to get more involved!