By Emily Messmer, FNP, Summit Medical Group Oregon Family Medicine

Aging does not affect people in the same manner. Aging processes occur at different rates due to multiple factors over a lifetime, including genetic make-up, lifestyle choices and environmental exposures.  But what exactly occurs in normal aging of the human body and how can we promote healthy aging over a lifetime? Here is a systematic look.

What is Occurring in the Cardiovascular System?

Aging commonly leads to general hardening and stiffening of the blood vessels, which in turn causes our hearts to work harder to pump blood through the body.  With time, an increased workload on the heart can lead to changes in the cardiac structure. These changes can lead to increased risks for high blood pressure and other heart-related conditions.

Promoting Healthy Cardiac Aging:

  • Exercise Regularly. The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week.
  • Eat a Heart Healthy Diet. Incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and high fiber foods into your diet. Look for lean protein sources such as fish and limit saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, red meats, processed sugars and sweetened beverages.
  • Manage Stress. A stressful lifestyle can negatively impact the health of the cardiovascular system. Look for ways to reduce stress such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, talk therapy and meditation.
  • Get Enough Sleep. Sleep helps to repair the body at a cellular level, which can also affect the cardiovascular system. Most experts recommend getting between 7-9 hours of sleep nightly.
  • Avoid Tobacco Use. Studies show the long-term effects of smoking include the hardening of arteries and overall increased risk for cardiovascular disease events such as heart attack or stroke. Talk with your provider to discuss ways to help you quit tobacco use.  

What is Occurring in the Musculoskeletal System?

Normal aging can lead to a decrease in bone size and density, which in turn can lead to more susceptibility to bone fracture. Additionally, muscles naturally begin to lose strength, endurance and flexibility, which can impact coordination, stability and balance.

Promoting Healthy Musculoskeletal Aging:

  • Consume Calcium. Men and women ages 19-50 should consume approximately 1000 mg of calcium daily and men and women over 50 should consume 1200 mg daily. Calcium can be found in dietary choices such as dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables and calcium fortified foods such as cereals. It is important to speak with your provider first to discuss specific recommendations if you have ongoing health concerns or chronic health conditions.
  • Consume Vitamin D. The endocrine society recommends 600 IU (International Unit) daily of Vitamin D for most adults up to age 70. After that 800 IU is recommended. While a balanced diet may provide adequate Vitamin D, some people may need to take a supplement. Some health conditions may lead to a variation of this recommendation so always talk with your health care provider before starting new supplements.
  • Weight Bearing Exercises. Performing regular exercises such as walking, jogging, tennis, hiking and weight bearing exercises can help promote muscle mass, build stronger bones and slow the progression of bone loss.
  • Avoid Drugs and Heavy Alcohol Consumption. Avoid smoking and limit alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day for females and two per day for males.

What is Occurring in the Digestive System?

Structural changes associated with aging in the digestive tract can make older adults more prone to constipation.  Other lifestyle choices sometimes associated with aging can also lead to constipation such as a sedentary lifestyle, decrease fluid intake, and diets low in fiber.

Promoting Healthy Digestive Aging:

  • Eat More Fiber. Ensure you are consuming enough fiber in your diet by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. Limit high fat foods, dairy and sweets.  Ensure you are drinking plenty of water daily as well.
  • Exercise Regularly (see above recommendations) and talk with your doctor if you are taking certain medications or have underlying medical conditions which may be contributing to symptoms.

What is Occurring in the Genitourinary (GU) System?

Aging can lead to less elasticity of the bladder and weakening of the bladder and pelvic floor muscle. As a result, these changes can lead to more frequent urination and less control over emptying the bladder. In men, aging can often lead to an enlarging or inflamed prostate which also causes difficulty emptying and frequent urination.

Promoting Healthy GU Aging:

  • Maintain a Healthy Weight. Follow above recommendations for regular exercise and dietary health.
  • Manage Chronic Medical Conditions. Talk with your provider if you have an underlying medical condition such as diabetes or benign prostatic hyperplasia or if you are taking medications that maybe contributing to your urinary symptoms.
  • Avoid Smoking. Smoking can increase the risk for bladder cancer and lead to vascular changes that can negatively impact your GU health. 
  • Avoid Bladder Irritants. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, carbonated beverages, and acid foods. 

What is Occurring in the Brain?

Like all other organs, the brain can start to have minor effects on our memory and thinking skills as we age.

Promoting Healthy Aging of the Brain:

  • Consume a Healthy Diet. See above recommendations.
  • Stay Mentally Active. This can include participating in hobbies, games, reading a book, taking a class to learn something new or playing word games to help exercise the brain.
  • Be Social. Research tells us that social interaction with others can help ward off depression, mood changes and stress.
  • Quit Smoking. Talk with your provider to discuss ways to help you quit tobacco use.
  • Manage Chronic Conditions. Follow up with your provider to manage high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and other chronic medication conditions that increase the risk for cognitive decline.

What is Occurring with our Eyes & Ears?

Common ocular changes can occur with aging that affect focusing on objects up close or may begin to cause difficulty adapting to light changes. The lens of the eye can also be affected with aging, causing cloudy vision, such as cataracts. Hearing can also diminish with normal aging and it may become more difficult hearing high frequencies or certain pitches.

Promoting Healthy Aging of our Eyes and Ears:

  • Eye Protection. Wear protection while out in the sunlight, such as sunglasses with UV protection and hats.
  • Eye Exams. Follow up for regular eye exams to assess vision.
  • Get a Check Up. See your provider to treat certain medical conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, which may lead to complications with your vision and eye health.
  • Avoid Loud Sounds. Wear ear protection, especially if you’re exposed to loud noises frequently.

What is Occurring with our Skin?

Aging can lead to thinner, less elastic skin and the fatty tissue just below the skin, often leading to more fragile skin.  Furthermore, a decrease in natural oil production can make our skin become drier. Normal aging along with a history of sun exposure can lead to an increased number of wrinkles and skin growths.

Promoting Healthy Aging of the Skin:

  • Wear sunscreen regularly along with protective clothing when directly exposed to the sun.
  • Avoid prolonged sun exposure. Especially during the hours of 10AM-2PM when UV exposure is the strongest.
  • See Your Provider. Follow up with your primary care provider or dermatologist for regular skin exams, especially if you have a personal history of heavy sun exposure, smoking, or personal or family history of skin cancer.

What is Occurring with our Weight?

Our metabolism naturally begins to slow with aging. Consequently, any amount of decreased activity followed by the usual amount of food intake will lead to weight gain over time.

Promoting a Healthy Weight:

  • Exercise Regularly. See recommendations as noted above
  • Follow a Healthy Diet. Talk with your provider on diet recommendations based on your weight loss goals and health history.
  • Consider a Consultation. A nutritionist, weight loss provider or bariatric surgeon canguide you through a comprehensive, lifestyle-oriented weight management program designed to optimize your health and improve your quality of life.