You are here

Fight Aging Before you Age!

You might not qualify for any senior-citizen discounts yet. But aging starts sooner than you might expect.

Age-related hearing starts going downhill at 25, though it isn’t noticeable until decades later. We start losing bone mass as early as our 30s. And a recent study by Duke University researchers found that some types of physical decline particularly lower-body strength and balance often begin in the 50s.

“Every function of the human body declines 5% every 10 years,” says Michael Roizen,chairman of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “That’s brain function, heart function, liver function. The difference is when you sense it and when it hits the critical level where it decreases functioning for you.”

The physical performance study, published in July in the Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, looked at 775 people from their 30s to over 90. The participants took five functional tests measuring strength, balance and endurance, including standing on one leg for a minute and rising from a chair repeatedly for 30 seconds.

In general, younger people performed better than older people and men better than women, as expected, says Miriam Morey, a professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine and senior author of the study. But researchers were surprised to find a marked decline in performance on the balance and chair test starting when participants were in their 50s.

“We should consider measuring these things over the full lifespan and not assume that these are problems of the aged, but rather a problem of aging,” Dr. Morey says.

This Is 40

When it comes to cognitive decline, there is a gradual loss of different functions. Speed of processing and working memory peak in the 20s and gradually start declining.

Learning new information after 40 can be harder, says Kathy Wild, an associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon. Tasks that require concentration should be done with minimal interruptions or distractions, she says. “Do just one thing until you’re done with it,” she says. “It’s really structuring the environment to minimize distractions.”

Reading glasses are often needed in your 40s as eyes lose the ability to focus on nearby objects. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

The Eyes Don’t Have It

By the 40s, even people without glasses may have trouble focusing on objects that are very close, like text in a book, says Rebecca Taylor, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and an ophthalmologist in Nashville, Tenn. It’s called presbyopia, and it’s the gradual loss of the eyes’ ability to focus actively on close objects.

For women in particular, dry eye becomes a common problem in the late 40s and early 50s, she says. Glaucoma and the development of cataracts are common problems in the 50s and 60s. By 75, about 70% of people will have developed a cataract, which causes a loss of ability to see at night but is easily treated with surgery.

The most serious vision problem is age-related macular degeneration. There is no cure for it, so prevention, beginning with a healthy diet, is key, Dr. Taylor says. She recommends diets high in vitamin C and vitamin E, zinc and copper, and lutein and zeaxanthin, found in leafy greens. Not smoking and wearing sunglasses with 100% UV protection are musts.

Did You Hear a Whistle?

High-pitched sounds are first to go. Our hearing is best between ages 18 and 25, says Ian Windmill, clinical director of audiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “It actually starts going down after that, but it’s so slow, so you don’t notice it for many years.”

The medical term for age-related hearing loss is presbycusis.

It usually becomes noticeable around age 50, he says.

There’s no way to restore such hearing loss, since it’s caused by both genetics and environmental factors, such as exposure to loud noises and chemicals, as well as your diet and medications.

Avoiding loud noises is impossible, but you can reduce their impact by taking measures such as wearing hearing protection when mowing the lawn or attending a rock concert, he says.

Significant declines begin in balance and lower-body strength in your 50s, a recent study found. Stretching exercises like yoga can help. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Core Concerns

Lower-body, core and postural strength are especially critical, says Katherine S. Hall, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke and first author of the study. “The earlier you start an exercise program the better.”

One of the hallmarks of aging is sarcopenia, which is the progressive loss of skeletal muscle that starts in the 30s, says Nathan LeBrasseur, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

It becomes noticeable in the late 30s and early 40s, when losing weight often becomes more difficult, he says.

The loss of muscle mass happens at a rate of about 10% per decade, he says, while muscle strength and power—the ability to generate force over time—declines even more dramatically. Dr. LeBrasseur says this may go beyond muscle loss, and be related to impaired brain signals and changes to the circulatory system.

Kyle Jeray, vice chairman of academics in the department of orthopaedic surgery at Greenville Health System in South Carolina, says bone mass peaks at about age 30.

Men and women have equal rates of loss between 30 and 50. Then at menopause, women experience a rapid increase in bone loss for as long as 10 years before it normalizes. Bone loss is compounded by muscle loss, leading to problems with balance and gait.

“When you lose core strength, you start having more and more trouble with balance,” says Dr. Jeray, who is chairman of the American Orthopaedic Association’s Own the Bone committee, which works to prevent osteoporosis-related fragility fractures. “Going up and down stairs without holding a handrail, for example, becomes harder.”

The combination of muscle and bone loss becomes a real problem when people reach their 60s and 70s, which is why maintaining muscle strength when in your 40s and 50s is so important, he says.