As the body ages it changes both physically and mentally. Needless to say, the most obvious ageing signs are physical, and the two most common signals of approaching old age are the hair and the skin. The hair loses its pigment and turns grey and eventually white, and the skin loses its elasticity so that it wrinkles, especially around the eyes and the neck. The hair also thins and men especially may go bald. Teeth tend to decay more easily in the elderly and may have to be filled or extracted, although advances in dental techniques mean that the latter is far less common, and the days when whole sets of teeth were extracted more or less routinely in older people are mercifully a thing of the past.
Muscles tend to lose their flexibility with age, although this is exacerbated by a sedentary life, and people who exercise adequately or do manual work show fewer signs of muscle deterioration than those who engage in little physical activity.
Bones become smaller, thinner and more brittle as they get older, and after the age of about 55 there is a measurable decrease in height. Posture often changes so that the elderly are no longer as erect, but round-shouldered or even stooped. Joints and ligaments deteriorate and stiffen so that movement is not as automatic as it was, but slower and more deliberate. Different body tissues and organs vary considerably as to the time at which they will begin to age. For example, hearing is never as acute as it is in the teens, whereas the heart doesn’t start to deteriorate until the thirties. Most organs are slightly less efficient by the age of forty but this is generally not noticeable for another decade or so unless the body is subjected to severe stress, such as illness or extreme exertion.
Just as the external parts of the body change with age, so too do the internal organs and
functions. The lung capacity decreases (especially in smokers), blood pressure rises, the heart increases in size and the arteries become more rigid. The levels of various minerals (such as iron) and proteins in the blood reduce. Just about every organ in the body degenerates to some extent, including the liver, kidneys, and the entire nervous system encompassing the brain, the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves.
The first mental capacity to deteriorate is the ability to formulate new concepts. Newton and Einstein were in their mid-twenties when they developed their theories. This is followed by a difficulty in learning new facts, and especially in relating them to previous knowledge – although it will usually not become obvious for a considerable period since it is possible to compensate with increasing experience. Older people take longer to react, for example a middle-aged car driver is slower to stop in an emergency than someone in their twenties. The ability to concentrate also lessens with age.
The most common mental deterioration is an increasing difficulty with memory. This is usually noticed for the first time around 60 and it normally relates to new things and recent happenings, not to events and skills learned in the past. Very old people can often remember perfectly what happened many years ago but have no recollection at all of the events of yesterday.
Despite the fact that our body works less efficiently with ageing, it does not mean that it is inevitable that the body will break down altogether. The ageing process of itself does not cause illness – for example arthritis has the same causes no matter what the age of the individual. But certain conditions are more likely to occur in later years simply because of a general decline in the body’s strength and resistance to infection.
Older people certainly have more time available to them than when they were building careers, homes and families, so they should enjoy their time by doing the travel, sports, hobbies and other activities that they always wanted to do but never got around to. Even relatively extreme activities such as abseiling, horse riding and even parachute jumps are not beyond many older people. The anticipation and organisation of these events can be more than half the fun, while recollecting and regaling your friends with the details can prolong the enjoyment for years afterwards.
It is important to remain active and not get into a boring routine. Vary your activities in a random way, and if an opportunity for activity presents itself, grab that opportunity, abandon any routine you may have and head off for a coffee at the local shops or a trip to the Amazon.
Even those who have had the misfortune to suffer from poor health, or don’t have the financial resources to travel far, can enjoy new activities as simple as gardening, walking, music appreciation classes, learning to play bridge, research into a topic (eg. history) that they have always wondered about, or just going to a different shopping centre to the usual one.
Sex is often a taboo subject for the elderly, but it need not be so. Many couples have an active and rewarding sex life until the end, not necessarily involving intercourse (although doctors now have ways of helping this for both sexes), but caresses and other forms of intimacy can be just as rewarding. In fact humans are healthier and happier if they have someone to love and care about. The fact that the body is not as trim, taut and terrific as it used to be is unimportant, it is the caring and touching that counts.
In general, Western societies do not cope well with old age. We don’t respect our old people and, as a community, fail to provide adequate facilities for them, although as more and more people live longer, the demand and political pressure for support services is likely to be increasingly pronounced and effective.
It is important to be aware of what is likely to happen as we age and to take steps to combat any negative aspects. Since the muscles and joints will become less flexible, appropriate exercise becomes doubly important. The exercise does not have to be vigorous, but a good brisk daily walk with some gentle stretching exercises to improve muscular condition will go a long way towards maintaining mobility. It is vital to maintain an adequate diet. When there is no longer a family at home to cook for, and especially if one spouse dies, it is easy to skimp on the preparation of meals and no longer eat an adequate supply of vitamins, minerals and the necessary nutrients. It is by no means uncommon for elderly people to suffer from malnutrition and older people often need to make a conscious effort to meet their dietary needs. Most community centres can make available easy-to-prepare recipes with a sound nutritional base.
Just as physical mobility is maintained by exercise, so too is the mind. It is important to maintain interests that have a purpose and keep the brain active and alert.
Most people will want to adapt their lifestyle as they get older so that their day-to-day living patterns are adjusted to meet their changing needs. A smaller home might be appropriate, which is near to shops or public transport if driving becomes too arduous. Proximity to family and friends becomes of increasing significance. Access to medical care is also important. Although ill health is by no means inevitable in old age, nevertheless it is more likely than before, and it is essential to have nearby a doctor and other medical facilities in which you have confidence.
You will never be really old provided you continue to have something to look forward to and approach new ideas and activities with enthusiasm.