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Successful Aging: Are aches and pains normal signs of aging?

Q. At the risk of complaining, I am having vision problems that require monthly doctor visits, a sore back from overexertion, a skin cancer that needs removal and some daily aches and pains. I know these are not life threatening but they make me feel that the evils of age are upon me. Is all of this part of normal aging? E.S.

Dear E.S.

You’ve asked an important question that has a complex answer.

To study normal aging scientists have used data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging, America’s longest-running scientific study of human aging which began in 1958. They concluded that “normal” aging is not the same as disease.

An old George Burns story makes the point. Mr. Burns goes to the doctor and says, “Doc, my right leg is killing me. It was perfectly fine last night and this morning I woke up and it was swollen and painful.” The doc says, “Mr. Burns, what do you expect? You are 91 years old?” Burns replied, “But doc, my left leg is also 91 years old.”

There are messages from this story. First, although aging is a declining process, it is a gradual one. A dramatic change in our bodies from one day to another suggests pathology, not normal aging. Second, pain does not necessarily mean we are old. There is a reason for pain. It is important to ask a physician for more information about the cause. An answer such as, “What do you expect, you are getting old?” isn’t sufficient in 2019.

Let’s talk about a few normal declines that accompany aging.

Looking in the mirror you may ask who is looking back at me noticing the gray hairs and wrinkles. If you don’t like the gray, there is always hair coloring. As for wrinkles, there are lotions and potions and more dramatic remedies. You can always think of wrinkles as character lines of a life well lived.

Here are some other changes. These can affect our health and functioning. With age, we lose muscle mass that translates into less strength, possible poor posture and diminished balance. Strength building exercises are one intervention. Our metabolism slows down with age which can result in weight gain. Fatty tissue can redistribute in our bodies often leaving our face and mysteriously reappearing around our waistlines. The good news is that decreased caloric intake and exercise can diminish this effect.

Although aging and disease are not the same, scientists have determined they are not completely independent of one another. The Mayo Clinic offers examples of this relationship.

One is the cardiovascular system. The most common age-related change is stiffening of the blood vessels and arteries that cause our hearts to work harder to pump the blood through the system. This change requires heart muscles to adjust to the workload, increasing the risk of high blood pressure and other related problems. The prevention and intervention are living a heart-healthy lifestyle consisting of physical activity, a healthy diet, no smoking and managing stress.

Another example is the immune system that helps protect our bodies from foreign or harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses, toxins and cancer cells. With age, we have a greater risk of getting sick, may heal more slowly and have an immune system that is less effective in correcting cell defects. To decrease the risks, we need to get flu and pneumonia vaccines, exercise to boost our immune system, eat healthy food, limit alcohol intake and not smoke.

Now to some of the symptoms you mentioned. It is likely that your vision problem is not part of normal aging and suggests a medical problem. Pains from overexertion might suggest you are out of shape or you just did too much. Skin cancers might be attributed to too much sun without sunscreen or just changes in the immune system. A dermatologist would know best. For aches and pains, check with your doctor.

Aging is a bad news-good news story. The bad news is that it is a declining process. The good news is that we can do something about it to delay declines as long as possible.

Thank you E.S. for your good question. Be well and enjoy life.

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