How Your Posture Changes as You Age
“With age comes wisdom,” noted writer Oscar Wilde. But he died at 46, too young to know firsthand what really comes with age – like fundamental changes in your posture.
Live long enough and you will find that you cannot stand as straight as you once did. Your spine may even form a permanent curve, like the top of a question mark.
While the spines should have a natural curve, a major curve in the thoracic spine (the part between the neck and the lower back) is called hyperkyphosis. Doctors generally call it kyphosis, and laymen simply describe it as a hunched back.
Minor changes in posture can be part of normal aging. Nonetheless, you should keep your doctors informed if you notice any changes in posture in your own body. You may be able to make lifestyle changes or take medication to prevent further changes in posture or ward off symptoms.
Health risks of a hunched back
Often with kyphosis you won’t have any symptoms or just mild discomfort. But there are some possible issues you should be aware of, including:
Theresa Marko, DPT, a New York-based clinical specialist in orthopedic physiotherapy, often treats patients who have age-related changes in posture. She says they can have pain just about anywhere from neck to ankle.
“When the mechanics of your joints change [due to kyphosis], it may cause a malfunction in one of the [interdependent] joints. It’s like a kinetic chain, ”she says.
Why posture changes with age
Aging affects three main “systems” responsible for your posture: the bone column (vertebrae) of your spine; discs that act as cushions between your vertebrae; and your muscles. Here is what can happen to these systems over the years.
Bone loss. Osteoporosis and its milder form, osteopenia, causes the vertebrae to lose calcium, become less dense and shrink a bit. Weakened bones can make posture problems worse, although a healthy lifestyle can help.
Shrinkage of the disc. Over the years, the rubbery exterior and spongy interior of your spinal discs begin to dry out. As a result, the bones in your spine come together, which affects the way you move.
Muscle loss. Your muscles help support your spine and keep your torso upright, but you tend to lose muscle mass as you age. This process can be slowed down with continued exercise.
These are not the only reasons for posture changes, just the most common. Others include:
- Post-traumatic kyphosis, which can occur after a vertebral fracture
- Post-surgical kyphosis, which can occur when spine surgery does not heal as expected
- Paralytic disorders, conditions that make you partially or totally paralyzed
Prevent posture problems
Kyphosis may not be a sure thing as you get older. Keeping your back, chest, and abdominal muscles strong can help prevent posture problems. Consider strengthening exercises that focus on your shoulders and core.
You should think about your posture as you go about your daily activities, such as sitting up straight when watching TV and taking breaks from activities that promote poor posture, such as sitting at your computer.
Treatment of posture problems
Postural kyphosis can be reversed, and you might want to see how far a commitment not to swallow takes you before trying other options. Beyond that, your doctor may recommend certain exercises, physical therapy, and / or a firm bed.
Other posture problems, especially those associated with “old age” tend to persist. At least, lifestyle choices and, in some cases, treatments can improve symptoms and prevent problems from getting worse.
Lifestyle choice. Lifestyle choices that improve age-related posture issues can benefit everyone, with or without orthopedic issues.
Medicines. Two types of drugs you might need are bone building drugs and pain relievers – but usually not heavy hitters. Start with acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen before asking your doctor for a prescription pain reliever. If you have osteoporosis, your doctor may recommend medications that help rebuild bones or those that help keep your bones dense.
Physical therapy. Think of it as a reliable, drug-free option for improving poor posture and the discomfort that comes with it. “A physiotherapist can give you postural advice and exercises to help you get out of that slumped position. We can also manually work the muscles in the front of your body, as they might tighten you up and pull you down into that “C” shape, says Marko.
Once you start to improve, you can learn movements you can do on your own “to keep your range of motion, alignment, and strength improved,” she says.
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