Have you ever wanted to be supermodel tall? If you like the idea of being statuesque, but you aren’t quite there, there’s bad news. You actually lose height as you age. In fact, studies show that the average person contracts around 1/3 of an inch every decade after the age of 40. This small, gradual loss of height adds up over the years! In fact, a French study that looked at 8,600 women 60 and older found that their height, on average, had declined by 2 inches.
You might wonder why this happens and if there’s anything you can do to avoid losing height as you age. Chances are, you’ll lose some height as the years advance, but you may be able to limit it through lifestyle. Most importantly, by keeping your bones healthy, you prevent the pathological loss of height as you age.
Some loss of height as you age is normal, but if you lose more than a half inch per decade, it may be a sign of a more serious problem – osteoporosis. As you know, osteoporosis is the pathological loss of bone mass. One sign of osteoporosis is a rapid loss in height.
Blame it on Your Discs!
So, how and why do you lose height? Your spinal column is designed to protect your spinal cord, the nerves that run to and from your brain to the rest of your body from damage. After all, those nerves are delicate, and they control many important functions, like the ability to move around and sense things. The more protection they have the better, and there’s not much harder than bone! The bones in your spinal column, called vertebrae, are stacked upon one another, but they’re separated by discs. The discs, also known as intervertebral discs, have a gel-like consistency that cushions the vertebrae and protects them against shock. In fact, the discs are composed of around 80% water.
As you age, the intervertebral discs become drier. As such, they lose volume and become more compressed. Since you have numerous discs, this compression leads to a loss of height as the discs gradually shed more water. The spinal column also becomes slightly more curved with age and this further contributes to height loss. Women tend to lose more height than men. One study found that men shed about an inch of height between the ages of 30 and 70 while women shrunk by 2 inches, on average, over the same time period.
Losing more height than this or experiencing a sudden loss of height may be a sign of compression fractures impacting the vertebrae in the spine. These fractures are common in people who have osteoporosis and can occur with only minimal trauma. Some women experience them when they cough hard or when they change positions quickly. Although they can cause pain, they can also be asymptomatic and are sometimes discovered on a routine x-ray. But one sign is a sudden change in height.
With osteoporosis comes a greater risk of fractures. In fact, a study that followed more than 3,000 women over the age of 70 found that those who lose 2 or more inches in height over a 2-year period had a 21% greater risk of developing a hip fracture.
Reducing Age-Related Height Loss
You can lower your risk of abnormal height loss, due to osteoporosis by leading a bone-healthy lifestyle. Strength training and high-impact exercise, if you’re healthy, helps stimulate the bones and reduce bone loss. Vitamin K2 is also important for bone health. We hear a lot about the role calcium and vitamin D plays in bone health, but recent studies suggest that taking calcium or vitamin D supplements may not prevent bone fractures after all. So, there needs to be more research to resolve this issue. However, it is important to get enough vitamin D and calcium for general health.
Strength-training and high-impact exercise lowers the risk of pathological bone loss, but what about the “normal” loss of height that goes with aging? A Belgian study found that people who regularly did aerobic exercise over the course of a lifetime lost less height than did folks who were mostly sedentary. In the study, exercise seemed to reduce height loss in men and women, but the effects were more pronounced in men.
Other factors that can accelerate the age-related loss of height are habits like smoking and drinking excessive alcohol. Taking certain medications, like prednisone and other steroid-based medications, may also cause a more pronounced loss of height. Pay attention to your posture too! Poor posture will make you look shorter than you actually are. In fact, bad posture can subtract up to 1.5 inches from your height.
Lifestyle Matters for Bone Health and to Minimize Loss of Height
Is loss of height inevitable? Most people DO lose height, but according to K. Michael Davies, an osteoporosis researcher at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, it is possible to reach old age without a significant loss in stature. So, lifestyle matters!
Regardless of your lifestyle, it’s important to know your bone density. The recommendations are that women at average risk of osteoporosis get a bone-density study for the first time at age 65. But, if you have risk factors for osteoporosis, you will need earlier and closer monitoring for loss of bone mass. The recommended test called a DEXA scan gives you a t-score that tells you how your bone density compares to a healthy 30-year old. A T-score of -2.5 or less indicates osteoporosis. A score between -1 and -2.5 is a marker of osteopenia, a low bone density that isn’t low enough to be osteoporosis. So, know your numbers and know where you stand from the perspective of bone health. The last thing you want is an untimely fracture due to weak bones.
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