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Do we shrink as we age? - (2/11/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The pharmacist’s friend, Ray, 60, came into the pharmacy that afternoon and said, “You’ve known me since high school. I’ve always been six foot four, right?” Yes, the pharmacist agreed that Ray was a tall guy. He even got the much-coveted position of point guard at his school’s basketball team. “Why do you ask the obvious?” the pharmacist replied. Ray explained that he was recently at his physician’s office for an annual checkup. When the nurse asked him to get on the scale, she announced, “185 pounds and six foot two.” “Not possible,” said Ray. “Believe me,” she said. 

Do we shrink as we age? Losing some of one’s height is a natural part of aging. Why? Consider the spine, a cord of 28 vertebrae. The fluid within each vertebra, called the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), travels to the brain and then back down the cord. Approximately 95% of the CSF is water. So, as we age, the amount of water in the CSF decreases, and the vertebrae tend to dry out and flatten. Hence, height is lost. Muscles lose mass as well. Muscles assist us in standing tall. The loss of muscle mass results in sloppy posture, giving the appearance of being shorter — also, the arches of the feet collapse, which will cause the slightest loss of height. 

How much height can we expect to forfeit over the years? The average individual can expect to lose 1/3-1/4 of an inch every decade after the age of 40. That means the typical male will have shrunk about 1-1/2 inches by the time he turns 70; a woman could lose up to 2 inches.

Being shorter does have its rewards. Studies show that adult height is inversely proportional to several age-related disorders, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a decline in cognitive function. Specifically, the taller we are, the more likely we will be clobbered with challenges to our health. One study revealed that shorter, smaller bodies have various advantages in terms of health and longevity.
Conversely, greater adult height was associated with slightly decreased overall health status among study subjects who had survived to older ages.  

The inherent benefit of smaller bodies is explained by a variety of biological factors, including much lower DNA damage and inflammation, the elements of disease and dysfunction. With healthful nutrition and lifestyles, and proper medical care, the height-challenged souls among us are less likely to experience age-related chronic diseases and more likely to reach an advanced age. 

While we cannot stop the clock, there are things we can do to preserve our height. For example, the spinal column holds 125 to 270 milliliters of CSF (about ½ to 1 cup). The body manufactures about 3 cups of CSF per day. By drinking more water – anywhere from 1 to 3 liters or 4 to 10 cups – every day will plump up those discs so you can walk taller. Also, exercise is essential to keep the muscles from shrinking. Weight-bearing exercises, like jogging, will strengthen the bottom half of the body while easy weight-lifting sets will get the back straighter. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and less red meat will cut down on the DNA damage and the inflammation to keep you at your healthiest, both physically and mentally. While the pharmacist’s buddy, Ray, may never reach a glorious 6’4” again, he can stop any further decreases with water, exercise, and loading up on the goods in the supermarket’s produce department instead of the butcher's counter. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com. 

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