Shrinkage! How Our Body Parts Get Smaller As We Age

by Phil Santa Maria

ShrinkageWhen I say “shrinkage,” what do you think of?

Many of you immediately thought of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza was seen naked by Jerry’s girlfriend after he came out of the pool. He tried to explain his teeny weenie by claiming “shrinkage.”

Well, it turns out that’s just part of the story.

As we get older there’s plenty of shrinkage, including our height, heart, brain, bladder, facial bones and, yes, sex organs.

Height Shrinkage

Most of us lose at least 1/3 of an inch in height every decade after the age of 40.

By 80, most men will be 2 inches shorter than they were in their prime, and women will be as much as 3.15 inches shorter.

What causes this?

Beginning at about 35, our bones lose minerals, especially calcium. Because our body’s ability to grow new bone tissue slows, our bones shrink slightly (and become more brittle and more likely to collapse as well as more likely to break, a condition known as osteoporosis).

In addition, the discs between the bones of our spine flatten over time, also contributing to making us shorter.

Temporary Height Shrinkage: Did you know that our discs temporarily flatten daily as we stand and move around? When we lie down at night, the discs reabsorb fluid and return to normal. That’s why we shrink by as much as ½ inch during the day but regain the height over night.

What can you do to protect yourself against height shrinkage?

First, choose the right parents. Not everyone get shorter, or shortens as much. There is a definite hereditary component.

Beyond that, a healthy lifestyle is your best protection.

Research has shown that people who engaged in moderately vigorous aerobic activity lost only about half as much height as those who stopped exercising in middle age or never exercised at all.

To help stave off osteoporosis, you should stick to a healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D.

Smoking, alcohol and excess caffeine (more than eight cups of coffee or tea a day) can affect bone health, too.

Maintaining good posture will also protect ageing discs.

Heart Shrinkage

Our heart shrinks by an average 0.3 grams per year beginning in middle age.

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, with every year it takes longer for the heart muscles to squeeze and relax, by around 2 to 5 %, and the amount of blood pumped out of the heart falls by 9 millilitres a year.

A poor blood supply leaves you more prone to heart failure.

How do you protect yourself against the effects of a shrinking heart?

Like all muscles, the heart becomes stronger and less likely to shrink if it is exercised.

Exercises that benefit your heart include walking, climbing stairs, gardening, vigorous housework, dancing or using home or gym exercise equipment.

Brain Shrinkage

Starting around the age of 20, your brain shrinks by as much as 10 to 15 % over your lifetime.

Doctors don’t know why this is, but studies show the process appears to be accelerated by smoking, drinking alcohol and diabetes.

Being overweight and having high cholesterol levels also appear to have an impact.

Scans show the frontal and temporal lobes (which control thinking, planning and memory) shrink most.

However, contrary to expectation, the shrinkage doesn’t necessarily affect our thinking capacity, and cognitive tests have shown men and women perform similarly despite increasingly different brain sizes.

Can we protect against brain shrinkage?

Keeping mentally active throughout your life is key.

Avoiding excess alcohol also helps (post-mortems show alcoholics have smaller, shrunken brains), as does getting adequate sleep.

Bladder Shrinkage

At the age of 25, the average person’s bladder can hold 2 cups of liquid, but by 65 its capacity is half that.

Capacity and function shrink with age because of physiological changes to the muscle structure.

Is bladder shrinkage inevitable?

Avoid excess caffeine or alcohol because they irritate the bladder.

Men and women should also do regular pelvic floor exercises to boost bladder control.

Facial Bone Shrinkage

Scientists used to think loss of muscle tone and gravity led to facial ageing, but more recent thinking is that the facial bones actually shrink in size, sucking in the skin and muscle around them.

The jawbone is most prone to shrinkage.

Experts believe women lose facial bone structure earlier than men (women in their early 40s, men 10 to 15 years later).

Is there any hope of avoiding or slowing facial bone shrinkage?

The key is to practice good dental hygiene to prevent tooth decay and loss which can aggravate the process.

Sex Organ Shrinkage

Both male and female sexual organs shrink with age.

With men this occurs for two reasons.

First, fatty substances (plaques) are deposited inside tiny arteries in the penis, restricting blood flow. This poor circulation leads to ‘atrophy’ of the tissue within the penis — leading to loss of length and thickness.

Second, there is a gradual build-up of relatively inelastic collagen (scar tissue) within the stretchy, fibrous sheath that makes erections possible.

If a man’s erect penis is 6 inches long when he is in his 30s, it might be 5 inches or 5½ inches when he reaches his 60s or 70s.

In addition, beginning around the age of 40, the testicles begin to shrink, by up to a 1/3 inch in diameter between the ages of 30 and 60.

In women, changes are related to reduced levels of estrogen, which reduce blood flow to the area. The uterus also shrinks, returning to the size of a pre-adolescent girl, as the body registers that the organ is no longer active and so spares vital resources that other, still active organs can use.

Dwindling estrogen levels mean mammary glands and milk-producing tissue wither, to be replaced by fat, so the breasts lose their bulk. Natural wear-and-tear on the supporting skin and ligaments makes them more likely to drop.

Is there anything you can do to protect against sex organ shrinkage?

For men, a healthy diet that is good for your heart will also be good for your sex life — as healthy arteries all over your body mean better blood flow to the penis.

Women can do little about breast changes (apart from wear a well-fitting bra), but for both men and women, regular sex can slow the shrinking process.

Largely, it’s a case of use it or lose it.

These Body Parts Don’t Shrink, They Keep Growing!

While all this shrinking is going on, our nose, ears and feet keep growing.

The inner part of the ear lobe (the ‘concha’) remains the same size, but most ears become steadily longer.

The traditional explanation has been they are made up cartilage, which continues to grow after bones.

However, gravity is another factor. Cartilage, like skin, becomes thinner and loses its elasticity as we age, with collagen and elastin fibres breaking down.

This allows skin to stretch and sag, the tip of the nose to lengthen and droop, and the ears to stretch down.

Our feet become longer and wider with age, as the tendons and ligaments which link the many tiny bones lose elasticity.

Podiatrists estimate that the over-40s can gain as much as one shoe size every ten years.

The tiny joints between the toe bones deteriorate, allowing the toes to spread out, and the arch of the foot to flatten.

The protective fat pads on the heels and balls of the feet also flatten through wear and tear.

What’s the take-away from all this? Eat right and exercise regularly to put the most life in your years.

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