When you see one of your friends or family members, you might think you’ve grown a bit – because surely they couldn’t have shrunk? Yes, they can – we do shrink as we get older. But why?
Professor Barbara Workman, Director of the Monash Ageing Research Centre, told the ABC that one of the main causes of height loss is the development of thinning intervertebral discs in their back. “They can become degenerative or they can be damaged over time, and that will mean your back is shorter because they’re thinner”.
Another reason people can get shorter, particularly women, is due to osteoporosis or brittle bones, a common side effect of menopause. The fractures caused by osteoporosis can compact the spine, which then sadly makes us shorter. Even those who were once tall can see a height difference of 1cm or more.
But are there any other reasons why we shrink as we age? Professor Workman said that sarcopenia can also contribute. Sarcopenia is a progressive loss of skeletal muscle and function, making a person frail, as well as hunched over.
We don’t actually just start shrinking the minute we hit 60, in fact muscle loss can start as early as 30 if you’re not physically active. Medications and medical conditions can enhance the symptoms and make the shrinking more obvious to you sooner than your 50s or 60s.
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“Men usually start off with stronger bones and bigger muscles, therefore it would take longer in their decline to reach a point where it becomes clinically significant”, Professor Workman told the ABC.
So how can you minimise the loss of height? Professor Workman recommends paying attention to nutrition, ensuring good vitamin D levels, and remaining physically active. Some may see benefits from tai chi or yoga, as well as anything with weights.
Are you at risk of osteoporosis? It can depend on your family history, whether you smoke or drink, whether you take medications for cancer, depression or arthritis, or if you have chronic liver or kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid conditions, coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
There is no need to worry about shrinking as is can happen to anyone and it typically won’t be detrimental – “from the point of view of discomfort or actual suffering, it’s not often something that happens early on” – but if you’re concerned about a significant vertical loss, ask your doctor. You can be at higher risk of hip fractures if you lose 5cm or more within 2 years.
Have you noticed that you’re shrinking? What caused it? Has it affected your life?