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Aging changes in body shape

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Your body shape changes naturally as you age. Some of these changes cannot be avoided but your lifestyle choices may slow or speed the process.

The human body is made up of fat, lean tissue (muscles and organs), bones, and water. After age 30, the people tend to lose lean tissue. Your muscles, liver, kidney, and other organs may lose some of their cells. This process of muscle loss is called atrophy. Bones may lose some of their minerals and become less dense (a condition called osteopenia, or at its later stage, osteoporosis). Tissue loss reduces the amount of water in your body.

The amount of body fat goes up steadily after age 30 and may rise by as much as 30%. Fat tissue builds up toward the center of the body, including around the internal organs. However, the layer of fat under the skin (subcutaneous) gets smaller.

The tendency to become shorter occurs among all races and both sexes. Height loss is related to aging changes in the bones, muscles, and joints. People typically lose about 1 cm (0.4 inches) every 10 years after age 40. Height loss is even more rapid after age 70. You may lose a total of 1 to 3 inches in height as you age. You can help prevent loss of height by following a healthy diet, staying physically active, and preventing and treating bone loss (osteoporosis).

Less muscle in the legs muscle and stiffer joints can make moving around harder. Excess body fat and changes in body shape also affect your balance making falls more likely.

Changes in total body weight vary for men and woman. Men often gain weight until about age 55, and then begin to lose weight later in life. This may be related to a drop in the male sex hormone testosterone. Women usually gain weight until age 65, and then begin to lose weight. Weight loss in later life occurs in part because lean muscle tissue is replaced with fat. Diet and exercise habits can play a large role in a person's weight changes over life.

Your lifestyle choices affect how quickly the aging process takes place. Some things you can do to reduce age-related body changes are:

  • Get regular exercise.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and optimal amounts of healthy fats.
  • Limit your alcohol use.
  • Avoid tobacco products and illicit drugs.

References

Minaker KL. Common clinical sequelae of aging. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 24.

Shah K, Villareal DT. Obesity. In: Fillit HM, Rockwood K. eds. Brocklehurst’s Textbook of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier: 2010:chap 83.

Updated: 11/16/2012

David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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