What Is It?
The thought of aging conjures some common perceptions: wrinkles, gray hair, a slightly stooped posture, perhaps some "senior moments" of forgetfulness. In fact, the process of aging has a nearly universal impact on our bodies, affecting our cells, tissues, organs, and body systems. The effects of aging can be seen in everything from our vital signs (like blood pressure) to our skin, to our bone and joints, to our cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous systems, and beyond. Some aging changes begin early in life. For example, your metabolism starts to gradually decline beginning at about age 20. Changes in your hearing, on the other hand, do not usually begin until age 50 or later.
We do not yet fully understand the complex interplay of factors that cause us to age as we do. Most likely, the vast and varied changes associated with aging result from a lifetime of environmental and cultural influences, as well as genetics, diet, exercise, illness and a host of other factors, all of which contribute to the aging process. A series of remarkable biological research studies since the 1990's have identified genes that can profoundly influence the rate at which cells, and animals, age. The good news from these studies is that biological changes that extend life also seem to extend vitality: animals that live longer remain quite healthy for most of their lengthened life. None of these discoveries is close to providing a "fountain of youth" for humans, but some scientists believe that the 21st Century will see the development of drugs that can extend human life and simultaneously improve human health.
Following are examples of how aging affects some of our major body systems.
Cells, organs and tissues:
Heart and blood vessels:
Bones, muscles, joints:
Brain and nervous system:
Eyes and Ears:
Skin, nails and hair:
We each age at different rates, and to different degrees, and yet we experience many common effects of aging. Some common signs and symptoms of aging include:
Although the body and mind go through many natural changes as we age, not all changes are normal. There are many misconceptions about what is a normal part of aging. Senility, for example, is not a natural consequence of getting old, though many people believe that it is.
It is important to talk to your physician about any changes you are experiencing. Your doctor can help you differentiate between what is a normal part of aging, and what is not. If necessary, your doctor may refer you to a specialist.
Aging is a continuous, progressive process that continues until the end of life.
We cannot stop ourselves from getting older. However, we can do our best to maintain our quality of life. One way to do this is to try to prevent some of the diseases and conditions that become more likely as we age.
But even the concept of prevention can become controversial as we get older. For example, experts often disagree on how long to continue certain preventive care strategies. That is because the potential benefits of screening tests and procedures decline as you get older, and because screening tests can sometimes lead to harm. For example, if the test is falsely positive -- indicates that a person may have a disease even he or she doesn't -- additional, more risky testing may be ordered.
Your own health care provider should work with you to determine whether you should have a particular screening test. For example, a screening test for a particular disease may not be necessary if your risk of getting that disease is very low in the first place. Or if you know you would not accept treatment for a particular disease, if it was discovered by a screening test, then it might not be worth getting the test in the first place. Or if it would not extend or enhance your life to discover and treat a particular disease, then it would not be worth doing a screening test for the disease. Only your health care provider and you can determine whether screening tests are worthwhile.
In addition to recommended screening tests, older adults should also be aware of recommended vaccinations. These include an annual herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine for people ages 60 and over, an annual flu vaccine, at least one pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine after age 65, and a tetanus-diphtheria booster shot every 10 years.
As you age, it is important to think about not only how long you will live, but how well you will live. The following strategies can help you maintain and perhaps even enhance your quality of life as you age.
When To Call a Professional
Call your doctor if you notice any changes that are not a normal part of aging. For example, although some occasional forgetfulness and slowing of thought are not uncommon, delirium, dementia and severe memory loss are not a normal part of aging, and should be reported to your doctor.
Although aging is inevitable, you can take steps to reduce your risk of disease and maintain your quality of life as you get older.
American Geriatrics Society Foundation for Health in Aging
The Empire State Building
350 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10118
National Institute on Aging
Building 31, Room 5C27
31 Center Drive, MSC 2292
Bethesda, MD 20892