Why we shrink as we age, and how to preserve height
In our youth, our height gradually increases, reaching our maximum peak around age 20. Afterward, our body’s bone density reduces over time, and we may begin to shrink.
Men’s height shrinks by about an inch between the ages of 30 to 70, while women’s height typically shrinks around two inches during that span. After age 80, both men and women may lose another inch, according to the landmark Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.
One might chalk up height loss as an inevitability of aging, much like losses in vision, hearing, and hair. However, the body’s shrinking could be a sign of something more serious.
“I think the biggest issue is that people expect that shrinking is part of aging, but a lot of times there is another process going on,” says Kristi DeSapri, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and internal medicine, specializing in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis at Northwestern Medicine.
Sometimes a decrease in height happens due to be more serious condition, such as osteoporosis. The condition can cause vertebrae in the spine to collapse, leading to decreased height and also — more importantly — to weakened bones and an increased risk of fractures.
In the United States, 54 million adults age 50 and older have low bone mass, according to the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation. Low bone mass — also called low bone density, or osteopenia — is a condition that means you have fewer minerals in your bones than typical for your age, causing your bones to become brittle.
Ram Aribindi, MD, is an orthopedist at Advocate South Suburban Hospital, in Hazel Crest. “As we age, the discs between our spinal vertebrae degenerate and lose water, contributing to loss of height,” Aribindi says. “Osteoporosis causes thinning of the bones which can lead to fractures of the vertebrae with some collapse leading to loss of height.”
Other conditions, such as neuropathy — which leads in part to muscle weakness — can decrease a person’s strength and stability, affecting their ability to stand upright. Conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal stenosis, or dementia may also lead to postural changes.
5 Tips to avoid shrinking
To preserve height for later years, physicians encourage people to start as early as their 30s. “The preventive measures that are taken in your younger years bode well down the road,” Aribindi says.
Here are five ways to keep your body in top shape.
1) Maintain good posture.
“Posture exercises are something that we all [can] work on. We’re all sort of bent over forward, moving our shoulders forward, or forward sloping. Posture is more important than we probably think,” DeSapri says.
Poor posture can put pressure on the spine, causing disc compression and spinal erosion, ultimately shortening height. Good posture, on the other hand, increases your stability and balance, keeping your spine as strong as possible.
2) Exercise often.
To help with good posture and to maintain your height, younger adults as well as older adults should exercise the muscles located behind the neck and in the upper spine. Those are the muscles that weaken due to inactivity over time, DeSapri says. But those muscles are important, as they help us stand upright and lift objects.
“When we’re younger, we’re carrying things, we’re pulling things, we’re playing sports,” she says. “As we age, however, we don’t use those muscles as much. One thing I do with my patients are exercises that help those extensor muscles in the upper thoracic and lumbar spine.” Exercises such as limb stretching, yoga, and weightlifting can strengthen back muscles.
3) Eat bone-healthy foods.
Dietary changes may ward off osteoporosis. Calcium and vitamin D are important nutrients to keep bones strong and healthy. Vitamin D helps the body better absorb calcium, and calcium keeps bones strong.
“It is vital to make as much bone as possible in the early years so that even with bone loss in later life, we are above the threshold for breaking bones,” Aribindi says. “Proper diet and exercise, especially load-bearing exercise, help preserve bone throughout life.”
Ask your doctor if calcium or vitamin D supplements are right for you, in addition to increasing nutrients in your diet.
4) Ask about medication.
Physicians may prescribe medication to people who have an increased risk of fractures. Some of these drugs reduce the rate at which bones break down, while others speed up the bone-building process. These drugs can strengthen bones and reduce the risk of fracture.
5) Know your normal.
DeSapri stresses the importance of knowing your height, so you can realize if you’re shrinking. “It’s really important to know your height and to measure it correctly on a wall-mounted stadiometer,” DeSapri says. “Spinal fractures can cause height loss and pain, and two-thirds of them go unrecognized and undiagnosed. These can signify that you have low bone density or osteoporosis and are at risk for another osteoporosis-related fracture.”