What are the impacts of aging?

While aging is often considered synonymous with decline or loss, some functions are actually enhanced as we get older.

We gain and accumulate knowledge, skills and understanding. Many of us muster emotional, intellectual and social reserves unavailable to us when younger.

Strengths such as reflection, spirituality, wisdom and caring for others come to the fore. This is the basis for the many success stories of older mentors who are uniquely able to express warmth, understanding and guidance.

As we get older, we get much better at opening ourselves to new opportunities, activities and relationships. The goal is to age with these gains outnumbering the losses.  The impact of aging can be positive and  managed with the right attitude.

Aging as compensation, remodeling and overloading

As we get older, there are a number of ways to compensate to keep things ticking over as they should. The human body has a broad range of strategies for its preservation and these strategies will impact how the body ages.

Aging increasingly tests our body’s limits for adaptation. Many of the changes that we see as aging are really just re-modelling to cope with different demands that aging places on our body.

At its most basic level, all cells do their best to hang on and cling to life, even when severely damaged. This can be achieved by shutting down all but the essential functions, so we can preserve energy and live to fight another day. This kind of compensation is observed in the brain where the nerve fibers shorten and branches and connections disappear, as aging brain cells conserve the basic functions necessary for survival at the expense of brain power.

Aging as loss of reserve

While the aging body can seem healthy, often what declines is the ability to ‘step up’ a gear. For example, as we get older, there is little change in the performance of our heart when resting, but the maximum output that can be achieved during exercise declines. This reserve is the same reserve we need to call on for activities of daily living as we get older.

One thing we know about aging is that we increasingly depend on our reserves, while at the same time these reserves can become more depleted. This is not just a physical phenomenon. Psychological and social reserves are equally important as we get older.

The reserve will determine the threshold for, and impact of, illness and other challenges that befall us as we age. Diminished reserves in key tissues are a key factor in many age-related diseases, including dementia, osteoporosis and heart disease. Deliberate attempts to build and maintain these reserves can make the threshold of dependence recede, and aging seem to slow.

Last Reviewed 03/Mar/2014

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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals

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