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Losing Height

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question:  I can no longer reach the top shelf in my kitchen.  Clearly I am getting shorter.  At 83, I am reluctant to stand on a stepstool and therefore have to wait for my son to help me move dishes to a lower shelf.  Being an impatient woman, that annoys me.   Why am I getting shorter and is there anything I can do about it?   M.H.

Dear M.H.

You made a good decision to avoid the stepstool.  Falls in the eighth and ninth decade of life can have serious consequences.

So why are you – and most people in their 70s and 80s – losing height?  Like it or not, it is part of normal aging.

After age 40, adults begin to lose a quarter to a third of an inch every decade. At age 70 this normal process speeds up.

Results from the 35-year Baltimore Longitudinal study found women lost on average two inches between ages 30 and 70 and three inches by 80.   Men had it a bit better.  On average, they lost just 1.2 inches between 30 and 70 and two inches by age 80.

Melinda Beck in her recent Wall Street Journal article “Yes, You are Getting Shorter,” (September 20, 2011) compares the physical shrinking to a house settling on its foundation.  Over time, disks which are the gel-like pads between our vertebrae tend to lose fluid and flatten.   And the vertebrae lose some mineral content making them thinner. The end result is that our trunk becomes shorter.

Interestingly, the long bones of arms and legs which can be more brittle because of mineral loss typically don’t change in length.  An older person may look out of proportion with a normal length of arms and legs compared to a shortened trunk.

Poor posture also will make us measure shorter.  Given that we lose muscle mass with age, muscles in the abdomen and back may become weaker, making it more difficult to stand erect.   Even our feet add to the cause; arches of the feet flatten out slightly contributing to a slight loss in height.

They key question is “what can we do about it?”  Evidence suggests we can slow this normal aging process.

Israeli researchers conducted a study of 2,000 men and women in 1965 and then again in 1995.  Those who engaged in moderately vigorous aerobic activity lost only about half as much height compared to those who never exercised or those who stopped exercising in mid-life. Even those who began exercising after 40 had an advantage.  The message is moderate vigorous aerobic activity is an effective intervention – and it’s never to later to begin.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine among other sources provides tips to minimize or postpone height loss.

  • Build strong bones in childhood.  (Hard to do in our adult years.)
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes sufficient calcium and vitamin D.  According to the National Institutes of Health, postmenopausal women and men over 65 need 1,200 to 1,500 mg. of calcium and 400-800 international units of vitamin D per day.  Check with your health professional what optimum is for you.
  • Exercise is key. That includes weight bearing exercise such as walking or jogging and strength building exercise that increases back and abdominal muscles, critical for erect posture.  Yoga and Pilates are excellent for maintaining flexibility, balance and strength – important in helping us to walk tall.
  • Avoid behaviors that accelerate height loss such as smoking cigarettes, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or caffeine, extreme dieting and taking steroids.

When adults lose more than the average expected height, a warning light goes on.  The biggest concern is osteoporosis causing bones to become brittle, weak and vulnerable to breaks or fractures.

The good news is that we have some influence over the rate and amount of height we lose.

Fortunately there are many places to turn for exercise in our community:   Carson Senior Center for a Chair Exercise class at 310-835-0212, Ext 1475; Tillman Senior Center for Gentle Fitness at 310-329-1889; Beach Cities Health District for Senior Yoga and Pilates at 310-374-3426, Ext. 147 and Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Advantage Program’s, “Bones for Life” at 310-517-4711.

M.H., best wishes in adjusting to the change and engaging in healthful habits to protect the bones.  And yes – do stay away from those stepstools.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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