Do People Really Shrink Over Time?

Starting at about age 40, most people lose approximately a half-inch of height per decade. The reason: degeneration and compression of spinal discs and vertebrae, which begin to show wear-and-tear damage during middle age.

As the spongy pads that protect and separate our vertebrae become thinner and less flexible, our spine becomes shorter. In addition, people who are not physically active lose muscle strength in their back and core, which often results in poor posture. Add in calcium loss in bones (osteoporosis)—another consequence of aging, especially for women who are post-menopausal—and you have a perfect formula for age-related shrinkage.

Experts say it doesn't have to be that way. Talk to your doctor and what you can do and follow these tips to help you stand tall for a lifetime:

1. Exercise

Regularly practicing a total-body exercise program that includes cardio, strength, and flexibility training is essential for keeping your muscles strong, your posture straight, and your spine flexible. In addition, weight-bearing exercises help your bones absorb calcium to stay strong.

If you're new to exercise, talk to a fitness professional and find out which exercises are appropriate for you. Don't fear lifting weights. Even light weights, used properly can benefit your muscle and bone strength. Never neglect your core muscles (the ones that surround your back and abdomen). And add a little impact to your cardio routine. That doesn't mean you need to pound the pavement or jar your joints. Walking, jogging, and gentle aerobics will do the trick for boosting your cardio-respiratory fitness while giving your bones a boost.

2. Calcium and Vitamin D

As we age, most men and women lose bone density from calcium depletion related to normal hormonal decline. This is especially common in women after menopause and if they don't use hormone replacement therapy. Calcium replacement either through diet or by taking supplements helps keep bones strong and mineral dense. Aim to consume 1200 mg of calcium per day either by eating calcium-rich dairy foods, leafy greens, and certain fish or by taking a calcium supplement. Vitamin D helps bones absorb calcium and is also absorbed through the skin via sunlight. While many adults get all the vitamin D they need through 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight exposure per day, many people will need supplemental intake through foods like fortified dairy products or through a supplement. Six hundred to 800 mg of vitamin D daily is recommended for most adults.

3. Clean Living

Alcohol and tobacco leach minerals from bones; decrease circulation to muscle and bone tissue and rapidly speed up the aging process. Ask your doctor about programs and prescriptions to help you quit smoking and about how much alcohol is appropriate for your health.

Oh, on a final note, even if you do lose a little height as you age, if you pay attention to your posture and stand up straight, no one will notice that you're slightly smaller than you used to be.

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.




National Institutes of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Disease Research Center. "Osteoporosis Overview" Web.