Yes, we know that aging is the process of growing old. But what is it? The encyclopedic knowledge of aging theories is vast and varied. At the biological level, aging is the byproduct of damage to our bodies over time. Physiologically, aging results from damage to the fiber of our being: molecular damage and cell damage, organ damage, etc.1
It is a snowball effectAccumulation of damage that will wear on our mind and body. We slow down mentally and physically, we become more susceptible to disease, our most essential components break down and deconstruct until one day the sum of the whole is not enough to sustain us. Sometimes this life transition is linear, consistent, predictable. Often it is not. While we would love to be able to predict, with certainty, a person's life expectancy based on a wide variety of factors (genetics, gender, sociological and environmental influences) we are simply just not able to dissect and outsmart nature on this level.
happening inside our body.
Beyond biological and physiological changes, aging is associated with a variety of life changes such as:
Here in America the average life expectancy is approximately 80 years old: 81 for women and 76 for men according to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.2 Other sources will cite a variety of numbers, generally in this same range but slightly variant as the statistics incorporate details such as location/state of residence, lifestyle, ethnicity, and other genetic factors. However, for the most part Americans are extremely fortunate and can hope to achieve octogenarian status.
Life expectancy across the world varies greatly from the long lives of the Japanese who live well into their 80s to the comparatively short lives of those from Sub Saharan African nations for whom life expectancy is barely 50.3 Count your blessings for much is determined by the country of our birth.
Hearing loss and vision problems are common conditions in older age. Almost everybody can expect to have some level of farsightedness (the difficulty in being able to focus on items close-up) as they age due to the hardening of the eye lens. This is called presbyopia. It is a natural and predictable process and is not painful. Presbyopia is, unfortunately, an unavoidable by-product of aging; but it can also, fortunately, be hardly noticeable in one’s daily lifestyle.4 It is estimated that just under 123 million people in the United States have presbyopia.5
Most people, even those with perfect vision in their younger years, will experience vision changes in their older years. For those that are myopic (nearsighted), the ability to see items from a distance won't continue to degrade with older age. One's myopia tends to level out in young adulthood. Unfortunately, one's nearsightedness won't improve/counteract with the onset of farsightedness.
Hearing loss due to age is referred to as presbycusis and can be due to any number and combination of factors including inner and outer ear changes, medical conditions, and drug use. Hearing loss in one's older years is not a given but is common. The National Institutes of Health estimates that almost 50% of older adults, aged 75 and over, have presbycusis.6 Hearing loss due to damage, loud noise, and/or long-term exposure to sounds that are too loud or last too long becomes more noticeable as one ages. Damage due to noise exposure actually damages the sensory hair cells in your ear; once damaged they do not repair, and hearing is permanently diminished.
Aches and pains due to arthritis and osteoarthritis are increasingly common as we age. Sometimes it is the result of specific damage or injury, often it is the byproduct of time and repetitive motion.7 Heart disease and diabetes are two common afflictions associated with aging and they are non-discriminatory affecting all races and genders in unfortunate abundance.
As our bodies age, so do our minds. Depression, memory loss, and confusion become increasingly common. Geriatric specific issues arise such as frailty, urinary incontinence, pressure ulcers (bed sores), falls, and dementias. Geriatric syndromes are just as devastating as disease in terms of toll on the person and their body. Seemingly ineluctable geriatric syndromes such as dementia and frailty can be just as deadly as heart and lung disease.8 Learn more about geriatric syndromes.
The age-old debate about nature vs. nurture! While many factors of healthy aging are genetic, much is also due to nurture! People's environments, both physical and social, all have their influence on the greater whole. The environments that people live in influence the aging process. From one's earliest development while still in the womb into childhood and through adulthood, one's physical and social environments combined with their personal characteristics (genetics) have long-term effects on how a person ages. Factors such as one's family unit, homes, neighborhoods and communities, socioeconomic status and surroundings all influence healthy aging.9
Social and physical environments have an important influence on the acquiring, development, and maintenance of healthy and beneficial behaviors. Acquiring, developing, and maintaining healthy behaviors are essential for all-inclusive good health: beneficial diet, physical activity, and refraining from toxicity (i.e. illicit drug, alcohol, and tobacco use) are but to name a few.
As we age, we should maintain and/or incorporate regular cardiovascular exercise and strength training to maintain muscle mass. Proper exercise and good nutrition can both help to preserve cognitive function, stave off losses in capacity, delay care dependency, and even reverse many geriatric syndromes.10 Regular mental stimulation and brain exercise is also extremely important! From taking an art class, to daily reading time, even a simple crossword puzzle are all great ways to keep your mind active and healthy.11
Supportive environments are necessary to enable people to do what is important to them, thus contributing to healthy aging. The availability of safe and accessible public and private buildings, programs, and transport are all essential so our aging loved ones don't become isolated and marginalized. Senior centers, sports clubs, libraries, botanical and community gardens, as well as parks and recreation opportunities are all important components to a healthy, holistic lifestyle.12