Human Aging: What Happens to Your Body When You Get Old
When I was thirty years old I was in tremendous shape. I would run on the beach all day long. Forget the six-pack; I had a twelve-pack. I could beat the drums as hard as humanly possible—while singing—for four to five hours at a time.
I clearly remember myself at that age. I remember looking at older people, with their spider veins, varicose veins, hair loss, wrinkled faces, and fat bellies. Somehow I believed that this would never happen to me. I would always be young. I was certain of it.
Our Population is Aging
The average life span in America has increased by four years since 1970. An American of age 65 should live 19 more years. Many people still expect to retire at 65, but they save less of their income than ever before.
Because of easy divorce, more than half of the elderly have no spouse with which to live out their last years, and we have fewer and fewer children as well. Many seem to give not much thought as to how they are going to live out their final days, alone and broke.
This is has serious ramifications now that our entire population is aging. In 1950, those over 65 were a tiny fraction of the American citizenry. Today, they are 20 percent of the populace.
In 1960, 11 percent of Americans were under the age of five and only 1 percent were over eighty. By 2040, there will be as many in the latter group as in the former.
Geriatric Care Services
Most people don't want to think about their coming decrepitude. Taking care of the elderly is going to be a serious problem. The number of certified geriatricians has fallen by 33 percent in the last six years, and the number of primary care doctors is plummeting. These two groups are the lowest paid doctors. And frankly, most doctors don't want to treat elderly patients.
The most serious threat to the aged is falling. One out of eight elderly people will suffer a serious fall this year. Three hundred and fifty thousand Americans fall and break a hip each year, with 40 percent of them headed straight for the nursing home afterwards; half of those will never walk again. The old lose their sense of balance, their muscles weaken, and their situation is not helped by multiple medications, many of which cause dizziness and dehydration.
One bright spot is that old folks who have visited a geriatric doctor within the last year are 50 percent less likely to develop depression, 33 percent less likely to become disabled, and 40 percent less likely to require home health services. What the geriatricians do is not high-tech medicine. They tend to reduce the number of and quantity of medications; they help control arthritis, stress foot care, plan diets, emphasize home safety, and watch for signs of isolation.
Only three hundred doctors will complete geriatrics training this year, nowhere near the number of geriatricians that will be retiring. As America ages, the demand for them will explode. But the University of Minnesota recently closed their geriatrics division, due to sustained financial losses. Across America, scores of medical centers have closed their geriatrics units. 97 percent of all medical students take no geriatrics training at all.
The work of geriatricians is difficult and unappealing. But the work is highly beneficial to the community. They bolster the resilience of the aged, and enable them to better withstand what comes.
One solution would be to require geriatric training for all primary care physicians; another would be to train nurses. Even a three week course has been shown to greatly benefit doctors and nurses, as to how to recognize and treat the specific problems of the elderly.
Home Care Services for the Aged
Those who plan ahead can live in a nice retirement community. To move in generally requires an average of ninety thousand dollars cash; and then thirty-two thousand dollars per year until you die. But the average annual income of those over eighty is only $15,000.
50 percent of the elderly spend their entire life-savings and go on Medicaid to survive. The average American will spend more than a year disabled in a nursing home before they pass on. 90 percent of our national health care bill is spent on the last year of life.
Those who save their earnings and work as long as they are able do far better in their latter years than those who don't. It is also of great benefit to maintain a social life, stay active, monitor teeth and bones, maintain your weight, and find a geriatric doctor. Some in their eighties not only continue to live independently, but also to care for a disabled spouse, and to continue to contribute to society.
Married people live longer, live independently longer, and are healthier and happier on average. Having a spouse in old age combats depression, and even a disabled spouse provides a sense of purpose--a way to still be of service in some way to those around you.
Married people can help one another get dressed, take medicine, prepare meals, exercise together, and accompany one another during medical treatments. Rather than a burden, even an ill spouse provides a sense of self worth to a relatively healthy person.
Effects of Aging on the Human Body
The risk of a driver over eighty having a fatal car crash is three times higher than that of a teenager. Old folks have poor night vision, as the amount of light reaching the retina decreases by 67 percent.
The aged tire easily, their sense of smell diminishes, their teeth fall out, and their skin dries out. Their sweat glands can't function, which is why the elderly are so susceptible to heat stroke, and exhaustion. Hair grows gray as you run out of the pigment that gives hair its color. Your skin cells lose the ability to clear out waste products, resulting in age spots.
It takes three times longer at eighty than at twenty to read a newspaper--and you will not understand a lot of it. You will not remember reading most of it the next day. You will tell the same stories over and over but not realize it. You will need to focus on only one task at a time, even something you have done thousands of times such as simply getting dressed. You will lose three inches of your height.
Old folks have a hard time swallowing because as you age, your spine tips forward. For you to look straight ahead will be like looking at the ceiling for young people. Try to swallow while looking up and you will see how easy it is to choke on your food this way. You have to learn to eat looking down.
Aging With Dignity
The latest studies show that heredity does not have much influence on longevity, contrary to long-held ideas. Complex systems have to survive and function despite having thousands of critical components. That is why we have an extra lung, kidney, and gonad; and plenty of teeth.
If a cell dies or a gene is damaged, there are others nearby ready to fill in. But as defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when the defects overwhelm the whole organism, and we become frail. It happens to people; and also to companies, cars, and power plants. Too many parts are damaged, redundant systems fail, and we wear down until we can't wear down anymore. The process is gradual and unrelenting. We simply fall apart.
The elderly develop crunchy arteries and veins, because calcium flows out of your bones into your tissues as you age. Your blood vessels narrow and stiffen, forcing your heart to work much harder to maintain blood flow. Because of this, half of us will have high blood pressure by age 65. At the same time, the heart steadily weakens.
Despite all the plastic surgery you would care to endure to fool people into thinking you are actually younger than you are, a dentist can tell how old you are you by examining a single tooth. The white enamel of your teeth is the hardest substance in your body, but with age the softer, darker layers show through, and the gums pull away from the teeth, exposing the base, elongating their appearance (especially the lower teeth).
In the course of a lifetime you will lose 40 percent of your jaw muscle mass, causing a shift to softer foods, which are higher in fermentable carbohydrates that cause further tooth decay. By age 60, the average American has lost 1/3 of their teeth.
Why Do We Grow Old and Die?
Why did God make us thus? Why when we grow in knowledge, experience, and wisdom; do our bodies horrifyingly decay around us? Could it be so we will not cling to the vanities of youth? So we will understand that our bodies are temporary housings? And if so, what do we make of the worship of youth?
This is not all there is. The intelligence and character that makes a person a person, lives on, after the body is gone. Perhaps that is where our focus should be.