Normal physical aging: What are typical changes?

Learn to recognize the typical signs of physical changes as you age, and take action to improve your quality of life as you grow older.

As the largest generation moves through their forties, fifties and sixties, there are many questions about what is considered normal physical aging. What can you typically expect, if serious injury or illness is not part of the picture? How can we maximize the time we have left and maintain, or even improve our physical health so that we have an enjoyable, high quality of life?

According to the Area Agency on Aging in St. Petersburg, FL, the changes aging individuals experience are not necessarily harmful. Our hair gets thinner and turns gray. Skin thins, becomes less elastic and begins to sag. Many bodily functions slow down as we go forward throughout adulthood. For instance, over time, production of digestive enzymes is reduced, weakening the body’s ability to break down and absorb the nutrition from food. Many of these losses may not be noticeable until later life. For more information about how we age visit the Area Agency on Aging website.

Scientists theorize that how people age likely results from a combination of many factors. Genes, lifestyle and disease can all affect the rate of aging. Studies have indicated that people age at different rates and in different ways. However, normal aging brings about some typical changes.

Our five senses are not as acute. Our eyes develop loss of peripheral vision and depth perception, along with a decrease in color clarity. Reflexes are also slowed while driving, therefore an individual might want to lengthen the distance between them and the car in front, and all while driving with increased caution.

We usually experience a reduced ability to hear sounds, especially high pitch ones. It is also more difficult to hear when there is significant background noise. Our sense of taste is affected by fewer taste buds and less saliva. We also are less sensitive to touch and have a declining ability to smell.

Our circulatory system and heart also change as we get older. Our arteries stiffen with age. Fatty deposits build up in our blood vessels over time, eventually causing hardening of the arteries or arteriosclerosis. Our heart muscle thickens with age and maximum pumping rate along with the body’s ability to extract oxygen from the blood are reduced over time.

Brain changes also occur over time. “Senior moments” become more common as our brain loses some of the structures that connect nerve cells, and the function of the cells themselves is reduced.

Metabolism also begins to change in our thirties. Body fat increases until middle age, stabilizes until later in life, then decreases. Fat distribution shifts around the body, moving from just beneath the skin to surrounding, deeper organs. Medicines and alcohol are processed more slowly, so that prescription medicines may require adjustments by our health care professional from time to time.

Other organs and body systems also experience normal aging changes. Kidneys shrink and become less efficient. Around age 20, lung tissue begins to lose its elasticity, and rib cage muscles begin to shrink so that maximum breathing capacity decreases with each decade of life.

Bladder changes increase the frequency in urination. Muscle mass declines, especially with lack of exercise, and beginning around age 35, bones lose minerals faster than they are replaced. Women go through menopause and men’s sperm production decreases and the prostate enlarges. Overall, all hormone levels for both men and women decrease.

According to the National Council on Aging, even though the strong association between physical inactivity and ill health is well known, 60 percent of the population is not active enough or not active at all. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fewer than 35 percent of older adults eat the recommended minimum of five fruits and vegetables every day.

What can we do to maximize our health and slow down the physical aging process? Check the National Council on Aging website at and the CDC website at for great ideas about improving and maintaining your health. We can influence the quality of our health as we grow older in many ways. In general, the lessons are clear and straightforward. Regular physical activity, a balanced diet, social involvement, moderate or no drinking, and no smoking can significantly decelerate the aging process. Contact your local Michigan State University Extension, county Council or Commission on Aging. There are resources in every community to help you get started improving your physical health and increasing the quality of your life.

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