The Science of Aging

in Health & Wellness, Senior Lifestyle

What is being done to improve the aging process and enhance the quality of life?

The time to understand aging is now. With 10,000 people turning 65 years old every day in the U.S., it is estimated that by 2030 one in five Americans will be 65 years of age or older. This is a global phenomenon as well. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that globally within the next five years — for the first time in human history — we will have more people over the age of 65 than those younger than five. The impacts of an aging world are considerable, particularly regarding health care. For example, the 65+ demographic is estimated to increase health care expenditures in the U.S. from today’s $3 trillion to $4 trillion by 2030.

As a result of the longevity revolution and all of us living longer, researchers are working hard to understand the biological, psychological and sociological aspects of aging. In short, we are interested in developing a strong understanding of the many processes that make up the science of aging. To best do this it is important to distinguish between what is normal and pathological aging. Aging does not equal disease. Additionally, researchers and scientists want to better understand how people grow older and how they react to the inevitable changes in their bodies that accompany age.

The biology of aging refers to the structural and functional changes that occur in a human over time, also known as the process of senescence. Aging is a normal process, inevitable and rarely seen as harmful. Pathological aging is understood as diseased aging and is marked by the onset of chronic and co-morbid conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s Disease. Living with one or more of these conditions increases a person’s vulnerability to stress and the probability of death. As a result of the normal process of aging, all the major body systems are impacted. Aging changes a person’s physical appearance and mental functioning.

Sensory Changes

All five senses decline with age. People lose sensitivity to perceptual experiences associated with vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch. One of the most common changes regarding vision is the loss of ability to see objects up close. This is called presbyopia and results in the use of glasses to read. There are new techniques being developed that will correct this condition and eliminate the need for reading glasses. Two common vision-related disorders are cataracts and glaucoma and both of these can be treated with the proper medical procedure.

Additional changes occur with the senses. For example, hearing naturally diminishes as we age. The most common types of hearing problems found in older adults include presbycusis (the inability to hear high frequency sounds) and tinnitus, which is also known as “ringing in the ears.” The nerves in the hands become duller and the skin on the fingertips thicker resulting in a diminished ability to detect temperature changes. The ability to smell becomes less sharp as we age. It is estimated that by age 50, our ability to smell is half as strong as it was in youth. As people age, they produce less saliva and have dryer mouths resulting in changes in taste. Many sensory changes are incremental and most people adapt easily by making lifestyle changes.

The Brain

Age-related changes in the nervous system impact all other body systems and can affect changes in walking, sleeping, learning and memory. Our mental capabilities and cognitive functioning change with age. Neurons, or brain cells, comprise the basic unit of the nervous system and are our information transmitters. As people grow older, neurons die and are not replaced. The brain gets smaller with the passage of time. This loss accounts for decreased flexibility, slowness of movement and changes in gait. The most consistent change is cognitive slowing. Age-related slowing is also evident on certain attentional tasks, such as trying to grasp a telephone number when someone rattles it off quickly. Aging-related changes to memory are also common and the ability to process new information declines with age.

The Heart

In general, muscle mass declines with age. The heart being a muscle is not exempt from this reality and may become thicker and stiffer. It is common for people to develop hypertension as they age. This occurs when arteries become less pliable or are blocked by the accumulations of plaque. The resting heart rate also slows with age and the risk for abnormal heart beat increases. This can be controlled with the use of a pacemaker. Additionally, the heart may both fill and empty more slowly, thus putting less blood into circulation.

The Body and Skin

As we age, various changes occur to our physical body and skin. Many of these changes are benign. For example, wrinkles, sagging skin and liver spots do not have health consequences but do make skin look different and reflect the most visible signs of aging. Skin becomes thinner, fragile and more susceptible to injury. Additionally, you may lose a protective layer of fat. If there are injuries to the skin, they can take longer to heal.

It is plausible that most people want to live vitally and into old age free of major disability and on average a large portion of older adults do live disability free. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2012, that 62 percent of people age 65 and over have no disabilities. To help us achieve an optimal later life, researchers are examining ways to best overcome some of the common age-related disorders. When considering the most common age-related illnesses (cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, memory loss, dementia and osteoarthritis), there are patterns of behavior that serve as preventative strategies across the board.

In general, the simple strategies that we hear often can and do improve your chances of aging well and living disease free: refraining from smoking, limiting your alcohol intake, watching your diet and eating healthy foods, exercising, managing stress and staying socially connected are all important as we age. Science tells us that we need to engage in all of these behaviors at the same time to reap their benefits.

Researchers have also found that concrete and specific behaviors increase a person’s odds of aging well without disease. For example, nutritionists suggest limiting sugar/fructose intake to less than 25 grams of total fructose per day. While it is important to exercise, the real benefit comes from high-intensity interval-type training.

Maintaining a positive outlook and managing stress is also important. Engage in meditation and emotion regulation as these are considered positive coping strategies.

Scientists have confirmed that people who take high-quality Omega-3s optimize their Vitamin D intake and intermittently enhance their chances of aging well and living with vitality. Healthy aging is a package deal and while there is no “quick fix” for aging well, science tells us that how we treat our bodies matters, and our choices impact how well we age. Use the science and incorporate these tips and strategies for aging well into your life.

Tips to Promote Healthy Aging

Have good social support networks.

Having good friends and meaningful connections helps us offset stressors and buffer the negative impacts that encountering difficulty can have on us.

Lend a helping hand.

Researchers determined that people 70 and older who volunteer for more than 100 hours a year report better health and less chronic pain.

Be optimistic.

Having a laid-back temperament, being flexible and letting go of worry is also linked to good health and less stress in later life.

Move more and cut back on calories.

Aerobic workouts stop brain shrinkage and prevent certain types of dementia. Caloric restriction can somewhat delay aging on a cellular level and help promote cell survival.

Reduce inflammation.

The connection between inflammation and chronic conditions is rather mysterious, but researchers are working hard to create and understand interventions that may reduce chronic inflammation.

Lydia Manning is a gerontologist, educator and entrepreneur with a wide range of experience in the field of aging. She is an associate professor of gerontology at Concordia University Chicago. Dr. Manning received her Ph.D. in social gerontology from the Department of Sociology and Gerontology at Miami University.