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Why you might be feeling old and what to do about it

A middle-aged man feeling old with back pain on his couch

Aging is an inevitable process, but it doesn’t have to get in the way of living your healthiest life. We’ll explore what happens to your body as you get older, and how to feel your best along the way.

When you’re in your 30s and 40s, you probably don’t think of yourself as old. But as you move further into middle age, you might start noticing signs that your body is changing. Maybe you’re not sleeping as well as you used to. Or your muscles take a little longer to heal after a workout. Or it might be a little harder to stand up quickly.

Much of this “feeling your age” is a natural part of getting older. Some effects of aging are unavoidable. But they don’t have to stop you from living your best life at any age.

“The number one thing is attitude,” says Walter P. Beaver, MD. He’s a family doctor with American Health Network, Inc., part of Optum, in Noblesville, Indiana. “Accept that some aging is going to happen. Then take precautions to take care of yourself.”

Here are some common signs of aging and what causes them. Plus, learn what you can do to take care of yourself and feel your best.

Sign of aging #1: Achy muscles and stiffer joints

As you get older, your muscles age, too. As early as your 30s, your muscles can start to shrink and lose some of their fibers. At the same time, your tendons — the tissues that attach the muscles to your bones — become stiffer. That can make you weaker and make your muscles and joints ache more.

The good news is that staying active can make a big difference. “It’s literally ‘use it or lose it,’” says Dr. Beaver. Being active keeps and builds muscles even as you age. Studies show that you can add muscle with strength training even in your 80s.1 And stretching on most days will keep your muscles and joints flexible.

“As you get older, it’s even more important to stretch your muscles. You should also do exercises to help with balance,” says Dr. Beaver. Balance is especially important for preventing falls. “Falls are a big deal. All kinds of bad things happen when you fall. Doing balance exercises makes a difference,” says Dr. Beaver. He recommends spending a couple of minutes each day standing on one foot and then alternating.

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Sign of aging #2: Digestive issues

You may start having more stomach problems as you age. Over the years, the muscles that help move things through your gut can start to work more slowly. That can cause constipation. This is especially true if you’re also not drinking enough fluids. Occasional constipation is nothing to worry about. But if it happens every day, you should talk with your doctor about it, says Dr. Beaver.

Heartburn can also become more common. That’s because the muscles that control the opening to the stomach weaken. Being overweight can make the problem worse. (These tips can make digestion easier.

Making some simple changes can help a lot. Fight constipation by being active every day. Drinking plenty of water and eating fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help, too. Talk with your doctor if you’re having heartburn often. They may suggest medications or habit changes.

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Sign of aging #3: More trouble sleeping

As you age, your sleep patterns tend to shift.2 That’s due to changes in the hormones that manage sleep.3 It may take you longer to fall asleep, or you may wake up more often at night. Sleep might also feel less restful.

One of the best ways to tackle sleep problems is to have a bedtime routine.4 Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day. Try not to watch TV or look at your phone or other screens right before bed. Their light can make it harder to fall asleep. Don’t drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks late in the day. And try not to eat a big meal close to bedtime.

If you’re really struggling, taking a sleep aid could help. But Dr. Beaver cautions against taking one every night. They won’t work as well if taken regularly. And talk to your doctor before you take an over-the-counter sleep aid or supplement.

Sign of aging #4: Vision and hearing changes

You might notice that your eyesight and hearing aren’t as sharp.

As you age, the lenses of your eyes become stiffer. That makes it harder to focus on objects that are up close.5,6 Most people will need reading glasses eventually. But these days, there are also other options, such as laser surgery, to correct your vision.

There is not much you can do to stop vision loss that's related to aging. But you can stop other more serious eye diseases, like:

  • Cataracts (cloudy eyesight)
  • Macular degeneration (blurred or no vision in the center of your vision)

Keeping up with good habits like exercise, healthy eating and not smoking helps. And it’s important to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun.

You may also have a harder time hearing high-pitched sounds. Following a conversation in a crowded room may be tough, too. That kind of hearing loss is caused by changes in the inner ear that happen as we age. To preserve your hearing, “it’s just a matter of protecting yourself from loud noises,” says Dr. Beaver.

He recommends getting a good pair of earplugs to wear at concerts or in other loud places. You may need hearing aids eventually, and that’s OK.

“The good news is that the technology for hearing aids is just incredible,” says Dr. Beaver. Protecting your hearing or using aids if you need them is important. Untreated, hearing loss can cause problems with your relationships. It can also leave you feeling lonelier. It’s harder to stay connected when you can’t hear as well. And it can even increase your odds of dementia (memory loss that gets worse over time).7

Dr. Beaver says that it’s important to get yearly vision and hearing checkups. That way, any problems can be caught and corrected early on. Learn more about other important screening tests

Sign of aging #5: Changes in thinking and memory

Maybe you have trouble recalling names or words sometimes. Or it might take a little longer to learn something new. It can be frustrating, but these memory slips are a normal part of aging.

Why do they happen? As you head into your 30s and 40s, some parts of your brain can start to shrink.12 Also, your nerve cells may not talk to one another as well as they used to.8 This means your brain is a little slower at bringing up memories and information. But there are things you can do to keep up good brain health. They include exercising regularly, eating well, taking care of your blood pressure and not smoking.9

Memory problems that affect your everyday life may be more serious.10 If you forget how to do simple activities, or have trouble following directions, tell your doctor right away. That way you can work on managing it together.

Take care of yourself now so you can keep enjoying your life later

Aging is an inevitable process. And more people are living longer. This can lead to a more serious health problem known as frailty. Frailty is like a more extreme version of the natural aging process. Signs of frailty include :

  • Trouble moving
  • Extreme weakness and tiredness
  • Weight loss
  • Problems with learning, thinking and getting along with others

Frailty impairs older people’s ability to live independently. It can lead to things such as falls, illnesses and other stressors. Seemingly minor problems could cause:

  • Disability (a physical, mental, social or functional impairment that limits important activities)
  • Time in the hospital or even death

It’s difficult to determine the cause of frailty. Depending on how you measure it, up to 16% of people age 65 and older may have it. It’s even higher among those age 85 and older, perhaps as high as 52% by some estimates.11

But it’s never too late to get into healthy habits that may help prevent frailty later. Aim to be active every day. Get into a healthy sleep routine. Watch what you eat. And see your doctor for routine checkups. Taking those everyday steps now can give you big health payoffs in your later years.

“Don’t even think of it as trying to be younger,” Dr. Beaver says. “Just think of it as being healthy.”

 

Sources

  1. Sports Medicine. Effects of resistance training on muscle size and strength in very elderly adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Published August 1, 2020. Accessed July 20, 2022.
  2. Sleep Foundation. Aging and sleep. Last updated March 18, 2022. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  3. Neuron. Sleep and human aging. Published April 5, 2017. Accessed July 20, 2022.
  4. National Institute on Aging. A good night’s sleep. Last reviewed November 3, 2020. Accessed June 23, 2022.
  5. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is presbyopia? Last reviewed February 3, 2022.
  6. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What are cataracts? Last reviewed September 13, 2021. Accessed June 24, 2022.
  7. National Institute on Aging. Hearing loss: A common problem for older adults. Last reviewed November 18, 2018. Accessed July 25, 2022.
  8. National Institute on Aging. How the aging brain affects thinking. Last reviewed October 19, 2020. Accessed June 22, 2022.
  9. National Institute on Aging. Cognitive health and older adults. Last reviewed October 1, 2020. Accessed June 22, 2022.
  10. National Institute on Aging. Memory, forgetfulness, and aging: what’s normal and what’s not? Last reviewed October 21, 2020. Accessed June 23, 2022.
  11. Cureus. Diagnosing frailty in primary care practice. March 19, 2022. Accessed July 20, 2022.
  12. Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Changes that occur to the aging brain: What happens when we get older. Last updated: June 7, 2022. Accessed August 5, 2022.

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