Animation: effects of ageing
Some of the changes associated with getting older, such as greying hair and the appearance of wrinkles, are hard to avoid. But other changes, including the loss of muscle bulk and strength, are now thought to be at least partially due to a lack of physical activity as we get older, rather than ageing itself.
Our animation shows you the effects of ageing on your mind and body, and highlights some of the changes that may be prevented, or at least delayed, by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Roll your mouse over the numbered parts of the body to see some of the effects of ageing.
Hair starts to turn grey because of a reduction in the amount of pigment produced in your hair follicles. Hair also starts thinning in both men and women. Almost everyone will have some degree of hair loss, and the rate that your hair grows will slow down too.
The lenses inside your eyes, which normally help you to focus, change with age. They become stiffer and less able to bend, making it harder to focus on close-up objects. The lenses can also become denser (making it harder to see in dim light) and slightly yellow (altering your perception of colour).
Dry eyes (resulting from reduced tear production) and drooping eyelids are age-related problems that can cause eye irritation. Ageing also increases the risk of developing cataracts, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration (a condition which causes a painless loss of vision).
The cells in your inner ear that are responsible for picking up sound waves start to deteriorate as you get older, leading to hearing problems. Cumulative exposure to loud noise can also damage these cells and contribute to hearing loss. The first sign of hearing loss may be difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds, because the cells that detect these sounds are often the first ones to be affected. Other age-related changes contributing to hearing loss include thickening of your eardrums, earwax build-up, and thinning of the walls of your ear canal.
4. Mouth and teeth
You may start producing less saliva, and your gums can start to recede slightly. Your teeth may also become slightly discoloured and more fragile, and your tooth enamel can start wearing away. All of these changes increase your risk of cavities and tooth loss.
You will lose a small number of nerve cells (neurones) in the brain as you get older. There will also be a drop in the concentration of certain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that act as messengers between nerve cells in your brain. These changes can cause minor memory problems, and it may start to take longer to learn new information. You may also notice that you have slower reflexes and poorer co-ordination.
Skin becomes thinner, less elastic and wrinkled. A decrease in the amount of natural oil produced by your skin means that it also becomes drier. The fat layer under the skin (which supports and protects the skin) thins out as you age, making your skin more fragile and wrinkled, and causing increased sensitivity to the cold.
A reduction in the number of sweat glands and blood vessels reduces your bodyâ€™s ability to cool itself down. Older skin also has fewer melanocytes (pigment-producing cells), resulting in less natural protection from the sun.
Your lungs and chest wall become stiffer with age, resulting in your lung capacity declining by about 40 per cent between the ages of 20 and 70. The muscles used in breathing (including your diaphragm) also become weaker with age, and you start to absorb slightly less oxygen from the air than you used to. These changes wonâ€™t cause any problems most of the time â€” probably the only time that youâ€™ll notice any difference to your breathing is when you exert yourself.
Most of the time, older hearts function well despite the changes that occur with ageing. Over time, your heart muscle becomes less efficient at pumping blood around your body, the walls of your heart become more rigid, and it takes longer for your heart to fill with blood. It also takes longer for your heart rate to increase in response to any increase in physical activity. Many of these age-related effects on the heart can be reduced by exercising regularly.
Some of the glandular tissue in women’s breasts will be replaced by fibrous material, causing the breasts to lose some of their firmness.
10. Immune system
Ageing can affect your immune system’s ability to fight disease. You are more prone to catching infections, and it takes longer to recover. On a positive note, allergy sufferers may notice that their symptoms become less severe as their immune systems age.
Your kidneys tend to become smaller and less effective at filtering waste from your blood starting from about age 30. However, most people’s kidneys continue functioning well enough to meet the body’s needs.
12. Digestive system
The movements that your digestive system makes to propel food through your bowel tend to slow down as you get older, which can cause constipation. There is also a general decrease in the secretion of digestive enzymes, making digestion slightly less efficient.
As you age, your arteries can start to lose some of their elasticity, and their walls become thicker and less flexible than when you were younger. Fatty deposits can begin to appear on the inner lining of arteries, narrowing the passageway for blood flow. These changes make it harder for the heart to pump blood through the vessels, and can cause high blood pressure. A healthy diet and regular physical activity can stop or slow the progression of many of these changes.
As you age, your bladder can’t hold as much urine as it used to, and the muscles supporting the bladder lose some strength. In postmenopausal women, bladder support is often reduced because of weaker pelvic floor muscles. The sphincter muscle that controls urine outflow also loses strength, so it is less able to prevent leakage.
Mens prostate glands often enlarge with age, sometimes enough to partially block the passage of urine out of the bladder. Persistent blockage can lead to incomplete bladder emptying and weakened bladder muscles, which can cause urine leakages.
15. Reproductive system
Women: After menopause, you stop ovulating and having periods. Your vagina may become shorter, narrower and less elastic, and the production of natural lubrication is often reduced, which can make sex uncomfortable. Your ovaries and uterus also tend to become smaller.
Men: Sperm production decreases with age, but most men remain fertile until death. You may notice that it takes longer to get an erection, and that erections are not as firm as before. Some men find that getting or maintaining an erection becomes a problem, at least some of the time.
Bone density decreases with age, so your bones become weaker and can break more easily. Some bones are affected more than others; your wrists, spine and ends of your thighbones at the hip are the weakest areas. Your bones also shrink a little over time, which can mean that you get shorter with age. However, age is not entirely to blame; at least some of these effects are due to a lack of physical activity.
From as young as age 30, your muscles can start to lose bulk and strength. You may also find that you are less flexible. However, these changes are not entirely due to ageing itself; your level of physical activity has a big influence on them, and regular exercise can significantly delay, or partially overcome, the loss of muscle mass.
The amount of lubricating fluid inside your joints (synovial fluid) decreases as you age, and articular cartilage (the cartilage that lines your joints) becomes thinner, so joint movement is not as smooth as it used to be. Ligaments also tend to shorten and lose some flexibility, making joints feel stiff. Although age-related joint changes vary from person to person, nearly everyone who is aged 80 or more has some degree of joint degeneration.
Last Reviewed: 07/05/2010
1. Merck Manual of Medical Information, 2nd Home Edition [website]. The ageing body, changes in the body (updated 2007 Aug). Available at: http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec26/ch320/ch320b.html (accessed 2010, Jul 5)
2. MedlinePlus, a service of the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health [website]. Aging changes in hair and nails (updated 2008, Oct 27). Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/004005.htm (accessed 2010, Jul 5)
3. National Institute on Aging, US National Institutes of Health [website]. AgePage, Aging and your eyes (updated 2009, May). Available at: http://www.nia.nih.gov/healthinformation/publications/eyes.htm (accessed 2010, Jul 5)