Why Do Old People Shrink? Prevent Height Loss
Yes, it is a fact of life - if you live long enough (I hope you do!) then you will inevitably shrink in height. If you make it past the age of 50 experiencing little to no height loss, then you are in the minority.
From the age of around 40 onwards changes in the human body take effect, such as disk degeneration and losing bone mass, and on average we will shrink around 1cm each decade thereafter. It is not all doom and gloom though, as with a core stretching or strengthening routine and supplement intake, height loss can be slowed down, alongside other benefits that come with taking good care of your body.
It is important to understand the reasons why we shrink alongside some tips to help slow down the process of height loss occurring.
Why do we Shrink?
Our bones stop developing at around age 25 when they stop retaining calcium, and from there on it is all a matter of maintaining what you have. Natural Levels of Vitamin D being produced by the body also decrease with age, and this helps the body to absorb calcium. Some bones are affected more than others, and this includes the bones important for maintaining height, the vertebrae (bones in the spine).
As the vertebrae become less dense, the spinal discs, which act like shock absorbers in-between the vertebrae, become thinner. The reason for this is tearing on the outer discs or the loss of fluid inside them, and therefore they become thinner (1). They also have a very low blood supply, resulting in an inability to heal once this occurs.
Gradual disc degeneration can result in tilting the head forwards and we can start to hunch over causing a curve in the spine.
The postural muscles supporting our spine also weaken, and holding the body in place as was once possible is no longer so. This includes the abdomen, which can influence poor posture. Alongside this, the arches in the foot can flatten, causing a few more millimeters of height loss (2).
By age 40 the majority of us would have experienced some form of disc degeneration, as height loss gradually occurs. However, this can start as early as 30 (see studies section). Some of us will be unaware that we have disc degeneration as it is also common to experience little to no pain, yet others suffer from acute pain and stiffness.
Can You Shrink Before You Reach 30?
It is highly unlikely someone will experience height loss in their 20's. However, not impossible. For instance, if you are putting excess pressure on your spine daily, such as constantly heavy lifting and not taking good care of your health, it is possible you may experience some minor shrinkage in your 20's. Injuries are another way that may cause early height loss.
So, any healthy adult with no underlying medical conditions or excess lifting will not shrink in their 20's. We do however lose height throughout the day, on average 0.8 inches (2cm). High-intensity activities can help speed this process up, and you may feel shorter after completing them.
You also may be measuring yourself at a different time of the day, which can fluctuate your height measurements. If you are concerned about this then the best thing to do is to measure yourself first thing in the morning after waking up, as your height will only vary by a few millimeters each morning, and you can gain a more accurate reading this way.
Do Legs Get Shorter With Age?
Excluding injury, the leg bones remain roughly the same length from after you reach adulthood, until death. It may feel like your legs are becoming shorter, due to the increased joint stiffness and decreased muscle mass that occurs through aging. Increased weight may factor into this.
It is also important to note that it is common to have one leg shorter than the other (leg length discrepancy LLD). The average is around 5mm for healthy adults. If this goes unnoticed then you may think that your leg is shrinking, where in truth it has been that length since you finished growing and will stay that length your entire adult life.
Do Shoulders Shrink With Age?
Shoulder bones do not shrink with age. Although, due to changes in posture, our shoulders will start to slump over with age. This may give the impression that shoulders shrink.
Also, it is common to lose weight (fat and muscle mass) after the age of 55. This can give the impression that the shoulders have shrunk, when in fact, the bones are still the same width and height as they have always been your adult life.
Studies On Height And Height Loss
The most comprehensive study on height loss was conducted between 1958 until 1993. It involved a group of 2,084 men and women between the ages of 17-94. Men were measured 9 times over 15 years and women were measured 7 times over a period of 9 years. The results indicated that men lost on average 1.2" (3cm) and women lost 2" (5cm) of height. This wasn't the end of their height loss, and in fact, it speeded up over the next decade, with men losing a further 0.8" (2cm) and women 1'2" (3cm) between the ages of 70 to 80, with an overall loss of 2" (5cm) for men and 3.2" (8cm) for women. (3)
According to another study conducted by the CDC with measured data (2016-18) men in the USA aged (30-39) are on average 5'9.4 (176.3 cm) tall, and for those aged (70-79) the average is 5'8.1 (173 cm). For women in the same age range (30-39) 5'4.1" (162.7 cm) and for those aged (70-79) is 5'2.3 cm (158.2 cm) (4). This is a difference height from ages 30-39 to 70-79 is 1.3" (3.3 cm) for men and 1.8" (4.57 cm) for women.
Both of these studies roughly correlate and show that younger people are considerably taller than their older counterparts, and also that significant height loss will between the ages of 30-79.
They also show that women lose more height than men. The reason for this can be attributed to differences in muscle mass and bone strength between both sexes.
Rapid Height Loss
Although shrinking with age is common, if you fall significantly outside of the average range and experience a loss of more than 1 inch (2.54cm) per year, then this is rapid height loss and a cause for concern, and maybe a sign of osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones and therefore becoming more susceptible to fractures. If you are experiencing such rapid shrinkage then should consult a specialist.
One study of 3000 adult men and women found that for those who are over 70 years of age, those who shrink significantly in a period of 2 years are at a considerably higher risk of developing a hip fracture '54% in men and 21% in women' (5).
Can Height Loss be Reversed?
There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that there is any way to reverse lost height. However, taking height supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin may help to reverse some height loss in the discs of the spine. According to research, 1500mg of glucosamine helped patients stand 2-4mm taller after one month of use (6).
If you combine this with stretching or a core strengthening routine then you will stand straighter, and your supportive muscles will help you to maintain height throughout the day. This is a way to stand taller and to help combat height loss.
Supplements To Maintain Bone Health
Glucosamine and chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin work in conjunction with each other to stop the breakage of tissues that lead to joint pains and disc degeneration. Glucosamine has actually been shown to increase disc height, and subsequently, the result is a few millimeters of height gain (7).
I have tried this and yes, I can stand straighter, and also gained 0.5 cm of height (5mm), and I also have less back pain. So, it worked for me.
Calcium + Vitamin D combo
Calcium helps to build and to maintain bone mass and Vitamin D absorbs calcium. It is crucial to get the balance right as if you are taking calcium tablets, but insufficient Vitamin D, some of the calcium will go to waste.
Healthy foods such as dairy milk and the green leafy veg combo is one way to get your daily dose of calcium vitamin D, or you can buy supplements that have been put together with the right balance and especially for bone health.
If you are not getting the right vitamins required for healthy bones or putting excess stressors on the spine, then the likelihood is that you will not be able to somewhat prevent the inevitability of shrinking, and you may actually speed the process up.
If you were questioning 'does everyone shrink with age' then you now know the answer is yes. Old people shrink more due to the natural aging process, however starting around age 40 we will slowly lose height, and by age 50 if you haven't lost anything, then you are in the minority.
Whether you feel you are shrinking or not, practicing a core strengthening routine such as Pilates can have benefits such as improved flexibility and agility. You will also be more supple and your body will thank you for it. Just 5 minutes of exercise per day can do you the world of good. It is about maintenance, and really is a case of 'if you don't use it, you lose it'.