Why seniors shrink

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2012

All of us lose some height as we grow older but not all of that loss is inevitable. The major factor is the reduction in thickness of the 23 intervertebral discs that separate most of our vertebrae, the block-like bones that make up the spinal column. About 80 percent of those spongy discs consists of water. As we age our tissues contain less water, If each disc loses only one-tenth of an inch in thickness it amounts to a reduction in height of about 2 ½ inches. The process begins at about age 40 and usually becomes worse in very old age.

Avoiding type 2 diabetes is a factor in slowing down disc degeneration. Healthy blood vessels nourish the intervertebral discs but diabetes distorts blood vessels and contributes to the damage. Further, high levels of blood sugar alter the proteins that make up most of the structure of the disc, accelerating their degeneration. Studies in diabetic animals suggest a third factor, the loss of cells that maintain disc health. Persons who exercise regularly and vigorously throughout their lives almost never develop type 2 diabetes.

The loss of height becomes more obvious when osteoporosis causes vertebrae to collapse. This leads to a forward bending of the spine known as kyphosis, resulting in the classic bent-over posture of advanced age. Contrary to popular opinion neither osteoporosis nor all of the loss of disc volume is the unavoidable consequence of old age. If you want to reach the age of 100 only a little shorter and with an erect posture it's possible to do that. The key, as with so many chronic diseases, is exercise.

A properly designed exercise routine will maintain strength and tone of the core muscle groups. Strong muscles of the abdomen and back help to maintain an erect posture. Regular physical activity that includes these muscles prevents the loss of bone mass of the spinal vertebrae so that collapse is less likely. Consistent — meaning almost daily — physical activity will prevent obesity so that there is less downward pressure on the spine that can lead to vertebral collapse.

When the loss of height is greater than normal it might signal the presence of osteoporosis. Persons who lose more than the expected 2 ½ inches from their maximum adult height are likely to have an increased risk of hip fracture.

If you want to stand tall all your life, get moving.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.