The Biology of Aging—What You Need to Know NOW

Part II in the Series “Aging Well”

We all want to “Age Well” so we can “Age in Place.”  Aging in place is not as idyllic or easy as it sounds.  Why not, you might ask?  While in your mind, you visualize the person you were at age 40 but at age 75, your body says differently. All the literature suggests that 90% of people want to age in place with dignity and with choices.  The Center for Disease Control defines aging in place as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability.”  The best choices are made with knowledge—knowledge of what to expect as you age and how to plan the future.  Knowledge is power.

The biology of aging is a lesson in what happens to our bodies with age.   The author of “Being Mortal,” Atul Gawande, strikes a light-hearted, humorous note when he says “Old age is irreverent, wise and laugh-out-funny about living long enough for your organs to start to betray you.”     

Aging is a fact of life—it begins from the day  you are born and is a combination of biologic and environmental factors. One theoretical study suggests the maximum human lifespan to be around 125!  Let’s find out what happens!

Aging happens at the cellular level.  There are two major theories of aging.  Both involve the breakdown of food substances into compounds that over time, are damaging to cells.  When you are young, cells reproduce rapidly, but as you age, the replacement of cells slow down until deterioration of cells occurs.

The deterioration occurs throughout the body systems—respiratory, heart, brain, kidneys, digestion, musculoskeletal and the five senses. In general, this is what happens to our bodies when cells stop dividing and begin deteriorating:  tissue in the heart, lungs and kidneys become less “stretchy” or elastic, leading to a slowing down in their function; the white matter in the brain shrinks which means the slowing down of signals between neurons; the digestive system lining becomes less active which means it absorbs fewer nutrients; bone density declines so bones become brittle, muscles lose mass;  the senses– hearing, taste, touch, smell become dull.

Of course, none of these changes take place over night.  You don’t wake up one morning, look in the mirror and say “I wonder what happened?” The biologic changes translate into pesky health issues:  high blood pressure, cataracts, hearing loss, new aches and pains due to arthritis, urinary frequency, decreased mobility due to loss of muscle mass, short term memory loss and decline in cognition, just  to name a few.

The consequence of physical changes have consequences on daily life—mostly related to changes in activity level.  Statistics show that 32% of people over the age of 65 have trouble walking and 46% of those people over 85.  Falls become the greatest risk for disability as you age.  Losing the ability to drive due to poor vision and loss of mobility takes the biggest toll on independence as you age.  It can lead to social isolation, difficulty getting to medical appointments, shopping and visiting friends.

Once you recognize that aging is inevitable and that the physical body declines, then you need to ask yourself the question –what can I do to age in place (if this is my choice)  with grace and dignity?  Planning and conversation with your family about your life goals are key.  “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today!”  Begin to think about how you will get to the doctors or do the grocery shopping if you can’t drive any longer; or how you will mow your lawn, shovel the snow, or mop the floor when arthritis pain limits your every move; or, how you will climb the stairs to the bedroom if you have trouble walking.

Part III of this series on “Aging Well” will give you a road map for evaluating your home setting and suggestions for practical ideas for what it takes to age in your own home.

About the author:   Judy Grumbly, Principal of AGE, LLC is an experienced certified aging life care manager, an adult nurse practitioner and a licensed registered nurse. Her career path in home care has taken her from the city of Boston, to the mountains of Colorado, to the suburbs of Northern Virginia. In each setting, the mission was to help aging adults maintain their independence in the home setting through education, support with appropriate community resources and coordination of care. Judy is currently the President of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Aging Life Care Association (ALCA) and on the Board of the Arlington Neighborhood Village.