Aging well through the decades
Undergraduates often miss the idea that aging is a lifelong process (already underway for each of them) and better understood from a multi-disciplinary perspective. An appreciation of adult development should go beyond consideration of just chronological age and physical appearance and include an understanding of the interaction of biological, psychological, socio-cultural, and life-cycle influences on individuals as they age. In my courses, the first lectures, which provide a general description of physical changes that occur with aging, prove to be enlightening for most students.
Gerontology is something I stumbled on as a career interest. My first job after college was as a research assistant at the National Council on the Aging. I was intrigued by the work, and I incorporated interests in aging and advocacy into subsequent education, training, and career opportunities. While teaching Adult Development and Aging at Bradley, I was able to integrate the undergraduate course with classes I teach for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), part of Bradley's Continuing Education program.
The table below shows some physical changes that take place across the adult lifespan. In designing the table, I searched for well-designed, time-tested studies that tracked the same group of people over an extended period. Progress in our understanding of the science of aging is often iterative and incremental and cannot always be based on random experiments. I would like to label each row in the table as a normative age-related change, but it's not clear that we know this for sure.
Consider the development of skin wrinkles over time. Simply described, skin wrinkling is a four-step process. The outer layer of skin becomes thinner through cell loss, and the skin becomes more fragile. Underneath the skin, collagen fibers that make up connective tissue lose flexibility over time, and skin is less able to regain its shape when pinched. Elastin fibers in the middle layer of skin also change as a person ages and lose the ability to keep the skin stretched out, which results in sagging. The layer underlying the skin is fat, which diminishes with age, thus depleting the "padding" which smoothes out the contours of the areas covered by skin.
Is this process inevitable? Does it really start so early in life? Research shows that UV light exposure and smoking are two environmental factors that lead to skin wrinkling. Tanning has been popular with adolescents and adults for decades, and new smokers continue to be recruited from the pre-teen and teenage populations every day. Would conscious efforts to avoid these and other environmental exposures alter the timeline for wrinkle development?
Issues with hearing
What about changes in hearing over time? Students running on campus wearing earbuds attached to MP3 players are a common sight on the Hilltop. The increased blood flow to the ear during exercise is associated with making hearing receptors more vulnerable to damage. Would the table row associated with changes in hearing shift to an earlier age in the future because of the popularity and increased use of these devices?
Is prevention possible?
As a follow-up to the table, the classroom discussion veered toward speculation on slowing down or preventing the aging process. Certainly, a goal to delay the development of chronic illnesses, often associated with getting older, is a laudable research objective, and engaging in healthy behaviors to delay harmful effects of aging is a legitimate activity. But does a focus on stopping a naturally occurring process — aging — arise from societal stereotyping? These focal points led to lively exchanges when both classes, undergraduate and OLLI, were meeting.
Research produced by the National Institutes of Health (including the National Institute on Aging), other government agencies, and university research labs can provide guidelines that can help reduce some limitations that take place with aging. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force conducts scientific evidence reviews of a broad range of clinical preventive health-related services (such as screening, counseling, and preventive health services and medications) and develops recommendations for primary care clinicians and health systems.
Based on these guidelines and those advocated in initiatives such as Healthy People (a federally-sponsored public health initiative that provides science-based, 10-year national objectives for promoting health and preventing disease) it's safe to say that there are, as yet, no magic bullets. The Healthy People website provides general health-related guidelines by gender, age, and racial groupings.
Of course, certain healthy behaviors can ameliorate the negative aspects of aging: follow general public health recommendations about health screening and immunization; do not use tobacco products; drink alcohol only in moderation; avoid prolonged sun exposure through the use of sunscreens, clothing, and sunglasses; eat a varied diet of mostly fresh (as opposed to highly processed) foods; engage in moderate exercise most days of the week and physical activity throughout each day; avoid prolonged exposure to loud noises; wake and sleep at consistent times throughout the week; and prevent injuries by using seatbelts and appropriate safety equipment during recreation.
Timeline of age-related physical changes
Compiled By Marjorie Getz. Contact Getz at email@example.com for a copy of the table with academic sources included.