Northside Health Library


Aging changes in body shape

Information

Many people are concerned with changes in their body shape as they age. Although some changes inevitably occur with aging, your lifestyle choices may slow or speed up these changes.

The human body is made up of fat, lean tissue (muscles and organs), bones, water, and other substances. As we age, the amount and distribution of these materials will change.

Fat tissue may increase toward the center of the body, including around the abdominal organs. The amount of body fat may increase by as much as 30%.

As fat increases, lean body mass decreases. Your muscles, liver, kidney, and other organs may lose some of their cells. This process of muscle loss is called atrophy. Bones may lose some of their minerals and become less dense (a condition called osteopenia, or at its later stage, osteoporosis). Tissue loss reduces the amount of water in your body.

You may become shorter. The tendency to become shorter occurs among all races and both sexes. Height loss is related to aging changes in the bones, muscles, and joints.

People typically lose about 1 cm (0.4 inches) every 10 years after age 40. Height loss is even greater after 70 years old. In total, you may lose 1 to 3 inches in height as you age.

This varies, however. Physical activity, a proper diet, and treating osteoporosis can help reduce height loss.

Men often gain weight until about age 55, then begin to lose weight. This may be related to a drop in the male sex hormone testosterone. Women usually gain weight until age 65, then begin to lose weight. Weight loss is, in part, caused by a loss of muscle tissue.

Of course, weight loss or gain varies from person to person, too. Diet and exercise play a large role in these changes.

A change in total body water may make older people more likely to get dehydrated. Pay attention to how much fluid you drink. Body changes also play an important role in how your body uses drugs. Medication doses may need to be adjusted as you age.

The loss of muscle mass in the legs and changes in body shape can affect your balance, leading to falls.

Although many age-related changes cannot be prevented, you can take certain steps to help slow or reduce them. These steps include exercise, avoiding smoking, and following a healthy diet. Drinking too much alcohol and using illicit drugs can speed up age-related changes.

The picture of a hunched over, frail man or woman with pot belly and skinny arms and legs does not happen to everyone. Lifestyle plays a large role in how fast these age-related changes take place.

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Review Date: 12/13/2010
Reviewed By: Michael Langan, M.D. Department of Geriatrics, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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