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What happens to our bodies as we age?

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By Michèle Sirois, contributor to the Fondation Institut de gériatrie de Montréal’s (IUGM) AvantÂge program.

 

On June 14 of this year, the AvantÂge program presented its final conference of the season at the Amphithéâtre Le Groupe Maurice venue. Catherine Brodeur, internal and geriatric medicine specialist at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, gave an hour-long presentation briefly summarizing the normal changes associated with ageing.

 

Canadian athlete Olga Kotelko died in 2014 at the age of 95. She held 30 world records in track and field, including 17 established at the age of 90 or older. Her secret: healthy muscle fibres. Normally with age, there’s a decrease in neurons activating the muscle fibres, leading to muscle atrophy. But unlike other people aged 65 and over, Olga Kotelko showed no signs of muscular decline. Was it genetics or training? Science is still trying to find the answer.

So what determines how we age? Luck is definitely a factor. So is our genetic inheritance. However, the biggest factors influencing our quality of life as we age are our environment and our long-term habits such as diet and social support systems.

Of course, even if we apply all the winning strategies for ageing well, our body will still, well, age.

Putting aside illness, when we age, our body experiences biological changes. The result is a reduction in our physical and functional capabilities.

Catherine Brodeur presented the human body’s functions according to nine major systems. For each system, she outlined the most frequent changes normally experienced during ageing as well as their consequences. Here we’ll focus on the three systems that appeared to generate the most interest among the conference’s participants, namely the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and nervous systems.

And because people 65 and over are increasingly invested as partners in their own health, we’ve included some strategies for dealing with these changes.

 

The cardiovascular system

 

Normal changes

As we age, our arteries become stiffer and pumping blood from the heart into the lungs becomes more difficult.

 

Consequences

The stiffening of our arteries can cause systolic pressure—the “upper number” on a blood pressure reading—to rise. This reading should be no higher than 150.

The heart is also forced to work harder to pump blood through the blood vessels.

That puts us at greater risk of stroke.

Difficulty moving blood through the body can also lead to heart failure and even pulmonary edema, or the buildup of fluid in the lungs.

 

Strategies

While we can’t reverse ageing, we have the power to improve our lifestyle habits, for example: targeting a healthy weight (losing 5-10% of your body weight can help reduce blood pressure), eating healthy and balanced meals (avoid excess salt) and exercising a minimum of 150 minutes a week (in segments of at least 10 minutes).

For more information, visit Heart & Stroke website.

 

The musculoskeletal system

 

Normal changes

Unlike Olga Kotelko, chances are we’ll all experience a loss of muscle fibres. In fact, between the ages of 20 and 70, our bodies lose 30-40% of their muscle mass.

We also experience a reduction in bone density (not to mention osteoporosis).

At the same time, we see an increase in body fat, particularly around the waist.

Finally, the cartilage in our joints receives less lubrication.

 

Consequences

Of course, less muscle mass means decreased strength, resistance and endurance.

And with increased body fat, the dosages of certain medications that get stored in fat cells, like benzodiazepines (for example, Ativan®), must be adjusted.

We also lose several centimetres of height and we become less flexible than before.

 

Strategies

Again, there’s no magic solution, but the key is to keep our bodies moving. First of all, choose activities you enjoy, which should ideally include cardio, weight and flexibility training.

To treat pain caused by osteoarthritis, it’s advisable to strengthen muscles through weight training. This will result in better support to the joints. Lighter forms of exercise like aquafit and pool walking are particularly recommended. It’s also good to add stretching and flexibility exercises. Yoga and tai chi are both excellent options.

 

For more information, take a look at this guide from Kino-Québec.

 

Nervous system

 

Normal changes

We know that the brain’s volume starts to decrease in our 30s, a process that accelerates after the age of 60. However, the brain does not lose its neurons. Intelligence remains the same, but the connection between neurons diminishes. Thus, the transmission of information in the brain slows and becomes less efficient.

 

Consequences

Our episodic memory diminishes. This is the type of memory that allows us to remember events we’ve experienced and to learn new information. Certain details of what we’ve done in recent weeks and months can become hazy, and the names of new acquaintances seem not to want to “stick” in our brain.

Working memory also diminishes. This is memory we use to retain information in the short term. With ageing, it becomes more difficult to quickly process information, particularly if there are multiple aspects to keep in mind simultaneously.

As many of us can confirm, as we age, we become more easily distracted and it gets hard to do two things at once!

 

Strategies

Strategies for maintaining good cognitive health are multiple and better understood than ever.

Help maintain adequate blood supply to the brain and its blood vessels by looking after your cardiovascular health (healthy weight, healthy blood pressure, control of diabetes, exercises, etc.).

Maintain your curiosity and keep learning by doing stimulating cognitive activities like reading, learning a new language or visiting a museum.

Finally, participating in social activities seems to help reduce anxiety, depression risk and dementia.

 

For more information, check the guide Get those grey cells working! from Famille Québec.

 

 

After her hour-long summary, Catherine Brodeur, who’s used to treating the oldest of the old and who considers people aged 70 and under “youth”, concluded her presentation by reiterating the importance of laughter and good company.

 

So this summer, keep enjoying yourselves!

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