When we’re young, we think we are invincible having the freedom to explore, play, learn. Fresh ideas, abundant energy, raw potential. It’s a beautiful thing.
Soon enough though, we learn the only certainty in life is aging. And with aging comes change, physical change being the most obvious. Recently I attended my high school reunion. My first impression was how old my classmates looked, way older than me. I hadn’t seen these people in decades and my image of them was stuck when they were fresh-faced 18-year-olds. Of course, they look old! Then reality set in. I must look old too. Bummer.
Do We Actually Shrink When We Age?
The answer is, yes. But, there are ways to slow down or even halt the process of shrinking. There are three things to consider: the amount of shrinkage; the rate at which it is occurring; the possibility of reversing the trend.
Absolutely nothing ages us more than a stooped posture.
How much do we lose?
There is varying research on this but it is safe to say we can lose between 1/4 to ½ in every decade beginning at age 40 or 50. The older you are the more rapid the height loss. Women lose on average about 3″ by the time they reach 80, while men lose about 2″ at the same age. Some people do not shrink at all.
Why does shrinking occur?
The stock answer because the discs in the spine become thinner. It’s a bit more complex than that and it can a combination of things.
Discs are cushions between each vertebra in the spine. Their purpose is to act as a shock absorber protecting the vertebra from sudden impact. Discs are quite hard, made up of a cartilage-like material, with a center of the disc (nucleus pulposus) somewhat softer.
As we age our discs begin to dry (desiccate) out. Through the drying process, they lose tensile properties and eventually thin out.
There are 23 discs in the human spine. Each disc is between 20% and 30% of the height of each vertebra, depending on where it is located. The discs are smaller in the cervical spine as are their vertebra. Conversely, discs are the largest in the lumbar spine. The larger the disc, the more height it may lose, based on the size of the vertebra. Bigger bones, bigger discs, larger loss of height.
Another reason for loss of height is arthritis. Although not specifically an aging problem as injury can cause arthritis in a joint (i.e. professional athletes often experience early onset arthritis), almost everyone gets arthritis. To be clear, we are discussing osteoarthritis (the most common type) as opposed to autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or the almost 100 different types of arthritis.
Arthritis affects the cartilage on the surface of each bone in a joint. It is caused by inflammation. The inflammation erodes the cartilage, degrades the joint capsule (pix here) and the tendons and ligaments which create joint motion. Arthritis causes this whole complex to weakened and, as a result, the bones move closer together. A good example of this is the hip joint.
The head of the femur sits inside the socket (acetabulum). When arthritis occurs here, the femur head moves deeper into the socket. You can lose up to ½’.
You can lose height in your knees, and ankles as well. All weight bearing joints. If you are unlucky to have arthritis in all three areas, this can add up to an inch in lost height.
When you exercise, the muscles pump up and the spaces between the bones (in any joint) will increase. Arthritis hates movement, exercise. Arthritis wants the joint to remain static. Not moving is the absolute worse thing you can do if you have arthritis because the non-motion actually increases the symptoms. If you are stiff in the morning it is because you have not been moving for several hours and all your bones are closer together than when your muscles are pumped up. Even slow walking pumps the muscles.
Here is a quick an easy stretching program to wake up your spine and lower extremities before you get out of bed.
Sounds terrible but very common. In fact, 25% of all postmenopausal women will have at least one compression fracture. It can happen to men too. The number one cause of spinal compression fractures is osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is more common in women than men because women have less density in their bones than men do. New bones cells are continuously being made throughout our lives. Some older bone cells are dying off at the same time.
Bone cells rapidly multiply when we are children when they are still growing. By about age 30, the new cell growth and the dying cells are at about the same rate. By 40 there is slightly more dying bone cells than multiplying ones. By 70 there is a greater rate of dying cells than new cell growth. Because of this, the bone matrix becomes more porous and thus weaker.
This occurs all over the body but is seen more often in the thoracic spine and in the hips. When you hear of a person falling and breaking a hip, more than likely the hip broke first and then they fell down!
Loss of Muscle Mass
It’s no surprise exercise makes us feel better and keeps our weight in check. But it also has much influence on our height. The right kind of exercise does make a difference too.
If you have lost muscle tone, especially in your back and buttocks, gravity will pull you forward into a stooped position. This alone can reduce your height by up to 4 inches. Four inches!!
This stooped posture isn’t just for the elderly and weak. It happens in young athletes as well. It is due to an unbalanced muscle structure. Weight training is necessary to ward off osteoporosis, but over-developing chest and arm muscles while ignoring your back muscles will pull you forward.
So often we see very weak lats (latissimus dorsi) and lower trap (trapezius) muscles, while the chest and arms are large in both male and female weightlifters. Developing the chest, without considering the back, causes the shoulders to roll forward, the head to move forward and the back becomes rounded.
A quick check to see if this is true for you: stand facing a mirror with your arms dangling at your sides. Look at your hands. If you see more of the back of your hand, rather than more of your palm, chances are you are spending too much time chest and arm building and not enough lat and lower trap training.
Poor posture and poor postural habits will eventually catch up to you. A seemingly normal, slumped forward posture, will make you appear much shorter than you are or can be. The following is a recent test, reported in the Iowa Orthopaedic Journal, using an MRI to measure height differences before and after extension of the back.
“The spine height gain after 10 minutes of a supine hyperextended posture differed significantly between individuals but everybody gained height. MRI images of the lumbar spine were used to measure the disc height. All but one subjects gained height during the hyperextension. Images of the spine during hyperextended posture showed increased lumbar curve and an increased anterior height of each disc compared with the dimensions of the disc with the spine in neutral posture”. For the full article click here.
This is nothing new to me. We have been using PurePosture with our patients for almost 6 years. It was designed to relieve back pain, at home, and the remarkable side-effect is that almost every one of our patients increased their height. Bonus!
What can be done?
The short and sweet of stop the shrinking is to improve our posture. Posture is comprised of three elements: Balance, Agility, and Strength.
Everyone regardless of age or physical activity level can improve their posture.
By balance I mean having your body balanced front to back, side to side and top to bottom. Ideally, your head, hip, knee, and ankle should line up vertically when in profile. Here is what that looks like.
So how do we do this: Extend the spine. We spend the greatest amount of our time leaning forward. We work on computers, check our phones, bend to tie our shoes, use pillows in bed, absolutely everything is done in a forward position. If we could spend half our time in the opposite direction, the problem would be solved doing nothing else. Clearly, that is not practical.
When working out, spend and an equal amount of time building your back and gluteal (butt) muscles as you do on your chest, stomach, and arms. This is very important.
If you are right handed, you are more likely stronger on the right. Put more effort into building your left side. Make a conscious effort to lead with your weaker leg. You will be surprised at how one-sided you are once you pay attention.
When walking, driving, just talking, stop leading with your chin. Try to keep your head directly above your body.
Agility has two main components: flexibility and speed. Being able to rotate your head so you can look over your shoulder is important. Being able to easily flex forward and backward is important. To have your muscles tuned enough to stop yourself from falling is important.
Agility can be trained. Increase your flexibility in a yoga class. Taking the uneven path rather than a smooth sidewalk is super for building agility. Play some tennis or other racket sport, ski, dance. Have some fun. You are NEVER too old to learn a new sport!
A study reported in Aging in Motion shows how eighty-year-olds can grow muscle mass and retain that muscle mass to that of forty-year-olds. If you are not increasing or, at the least, maintaining your strength, you are doing yourself a disfavor.
Our bodies were meant to be in motion.
It is my firm belief we do not have to shrink just because it is accepted as normal. It does take some effort and conscious thought. Here is a checklist.
Increase your spinal flexibility. There is conclusive evidence that extending the spine will increase your height. I know this because I see it every day and it has been scientifically proven that extension increases height. Check it out here. Yoga and general stretching are enormously helpful.
- Weight train. Weight training increases your bone density which will slow down osteoporosis and decrease the opportunity for bone fracture.
- Move your body. Fight arthritis by increasing your motion. The best exercise for this is swimming, followed by walking, preferably on uneven surfaces.
- Increase muscle mass. Gain strength in your core, back and gluteal (butt) muscles. These are your postural muscles.
- Get some sleep. We know sleeping rehydrates the discs.
- Be conscious of your posture. Being conscious of your posture is the first step. Always stand and sit up tall. This takes practice.
- Try PurePosture. With consistent use, you can achieve your posture goals for a lifetime.
Dr Beverley Marr, posture expert, chiropractor, co-founder of PurePosture. She believes poor posture is a root cause of many health issues prevalent today. To read about Dr Marr click here. To learn more about PurePosture click here.