The Ageing Body


Inevitably, as we age, our body’s will change. Observable age-related changes can be seen from as young as 40 years old. But old age does not mean disability and disease – there is potential for physical, social and mental wellbeing throughout the life course. Active ageing, according to the World Health Organisation, is the process of optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life.

Naturally, ageing muscles will decrease in size, have reduced energy sources for muscle movement, and exhibit more fat and scar tissue. Functionally, this means the muscles will fatigue quickly, lose strength and power, have slower reaction times and have reduced circulation leading to longer healing times after injury. Many of these factors are accelerated with disuse. In order to delay the ageing process in our muscles, we must stay active and strong!

Just as we will see muscular changes, many systems in the body may change, which often increases the risk of falls. With the eyes and vestibular system getting worse with age, older adults are prone to balance issues – often finding it difficult to use other senses (like touch) to take over the poorer senses when needed. Their brain also finds it difficult to quickly choose the best sensory system to use, when the environment changes around them. Additionally, the risk of falls is increased by an increase in postural sway (movement side-to-side and forward-backward while standing/sitting) and decreased ability of the ankle to compensate, causing difficulty in correcting and controlling posture.

Luckily, the body can be trained to re-prioritise which senses it uses and rely on the remaining senses to prevent the fall. However, if a fall occurs, the risk of injury can often be much greater due to a weakened immune system and an increased risk of osteoporosis from decreased bone growth and reproductive hormones. 

The skill of dual-tasking can also become difficult with age-related cognitive issues. These can include decreased: memory capacity, speed of information processing, ability to share attention and visual awareness of where things are in space. All these factors can improve with appropriate training. 

Despite these daunting challenges, there is a lot we can do to upkeep our daily functional activities and quality of life. Physiotherapists can help to identify any mobility or safety issues and devise a care plan of improvement. Management plans can involve community-based services, home exercise programs, or referrals to get help at home. More specifically, to reduce falls and injury we must: improve environmental safety, encourage use of hip protectors, ensure good nutrition and hydration, improve mobility and educate surrounding helpers. Exercise themes may involve:

  • functional strengthening
  • social interaction
  • deep breathing
  • coordination
  • multi-tasking
  • large movements and
  • concentration/attention.

As the age-old saying goes: if you don’t use it, you lose it. The ageing body can quickly be made an active body!

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