As you age, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself getting closer to the floor! Like hair that turns grey or wrinkles that form, loss of height is an unfortunate but natural process that many individuals adjust to without complication. The majority of people slowly shrink between ages 30 to 70. Women lose around two inches while men lose only one inch. Loss of height is less prominent in men due to their higher muscle mass and, on average, stronger bones, resulting in less osteoporosis. At 80, both genders usually lose an additional inch.
Your decreased stature is caused in part due to bones shrinking in size and density over time. However, the most dramatic change is in your spine.
The spine is incredibly important to maintaining your body’s form and function. It is composed of 24 bones (vertebra) that are held together with ligaments and muscles. The spines’ job is protecting your spinal cord while supporting your range of motion.
Between each vertebra is an intervertebral disc. These soft discs act as shock absorbers, preventing bone from rubbing against each other and causing damage. This support is possible thanks to the high water content of the jelly-like discs.
In older individuals, discs retain less water and are therefore less effective at their jobs. Over time, the loss of moisture combined with the weight of your upright body compresses the discs. This process, which results in a noticeably loss of height, is called degenerative disc disease.
Despite what its name implies, this is not a disease but rather the natural changes in your spine due to age. The less padding your spine has, the more prone it is to damage. These changes in the discs’ composition can result in osteoarthritis, herniated discs, or spinal stenosis.
Aging of the spinal discs is natural and irreversible. For some individuals, the impact of degenerative disc disease is minimal. In more serious cases, it can seriously impact your quality of life and may require surgery.
Generally, losing a few inches over many years is nothing to stress over. However, when height loss is dramatic or sudden, there could be a serious underlying medical condition. This is especially true for men, who should lose height more slowly than women. Men age 70 or older who lose two or more inches in two years are 54% more likely to experience a hip fracture. If they lose 1.5 inches, they are at a higher risk of heart attack.
Severe height loss (4 inches) is often associated with osteoporosis. In the past, osteoporosis was only detected after a bone broke. Now, bone density tests can help calculate the risk of breaking bones prior to injury.
Risk factors for osteoporosis include
- Age: Older individuals are at greater risk for osteoporosis.
- Gender: Women develop osteoporosis more often than men. This is especially true in menopausal women, due to their lower estrogen levels.
- Ethnicity: Caucasian and Asian individuals are at higher risk for osteoporosis than those of African or Hispanic descent.
- Family history: Osteoporosis tends to run in families.
If you have lost a significant amount of height in the last few years or you are at risk of osteoporosis, you may want to consider a bone density test. Information from a bone density scan can help you and a medical professional work together to protect against broken bones in the future.
At the South Texas Spinal Clinic, we have the latest equipment to check your bone density. For more information, contact us at (210) 495-9047.