We’re shorter than we used to be—and it’s not just because we might not be wearing those skyscraper-heels anymore. No, we are actually shrinking.
Starting at about age 40, people typically lose about half an inch each decade, according to Harvard Medical School. As we age, our spine loses bone density and the gel-like disks that separate each vertebra get worn down and thin. The result: our spinal column actually becomes shorter. What’s more, that spine deterioration, compounded with muscle loss, can cause that hunched-over look that seems to go hand-in-hand with aging.
As if becoming shorter weren’t bad enough, if you notice yourself losing more than half an inch every decade (yes, you can start measuring yourself like you did as a kid!), it could be a sign of osteoporosis.
One study of more than 3,000 adults published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that women over the age 70 who lose two or more inches in two years are 21 percent more likely to fracture a hip in the next two years than are women who shrink less. Women over the age of 50 are at the greatest risk for developing osteoporosis, according to the Cleveland Clinic. During perimenopause and menopause, plummeting estrogen levels can cause loss of bone mass. After menopause, bone breakdown outpaces the building of new bone in women.
Thankfully, aging doesn’t have to be just another word for shrinking! Economists at the University of Southern California, Harvard, and Peking University recently studied 17,708 adults over the age of 45 and found that not everyone shrinks the same.
People who call the city home shrink less than country dwellers, and educated folk shrink a full centimeter less than those who are illiterate, according to the study. While researchers say the findings aren’t reason to move to the city and frequent the library, they could point to lifestyle habits such as drinking, smoking, and inactivity that promote bone (and height!) loss throughout the years.
1. Feed Your Bones
“Don’t count on the sun,”says Dr. Diane L. Schneider, the author of The Complete Book of Bone Health and co-founder of 4BoneHealth.org. “Although sunshine is the main source of vitamin D, you can’t expect sun to be your primary source in all seasons of the year. Sunscreen blocks the production of vitamin D.”
Women older than 50 need 1,200 milligrams of calcium every day to keep their bones strong. As vitamin D helps your body absorb this calcium, most women need 600 IU of the vitamin a day, while women older than 70 need 800 IU. Talk with your menopause specialist about checking your vitamin D levels before taking any supplements. While it’s always a good idea to check your foods’ nutritional labels for their levels of calcium and vitamin D, remember that among the best sources of calcium are broccoli, kale, turnip greens, bok choy, black beans and almonds. Unfortunately, few foods contain vitamin D. Top sources of vitamin D include fatty fish (wild salmon, herring, and sardines), and fortified milk.
2. Hit the Gym
Exercise is for more than your muscles. Israeli researchers who measured more than 2,000 men and women in 1965 and 1995 found that those who exercised, either throughout their lives or just after they turned 40, lost about half as much height as those who had never exercised or stopped working out during middle age. Weight-bearing exercises—like running, jumping, or strength training—put stress on your bones, which signals to your body to strengthen them and causes new cells to be added to your bones.
3. Nix Your Vices
Smoking damages your bones and lowers the amount of estrogen in your body, while alcohol can impact vitamin D metabolism, making it hard for your body to absorb calcium. While one cigarette is one too many, the consensus is that drinking in moderation is fine.
Don’t let your age get you down—metaphorically or physically! Aging gracefully is all about prioritizing your health through simple lifestyle changes. You can step it up and feel good in menopause and beyond!
Remember: Suffering in silence is OUT! Reaching out is IN!