Normal Aging And Bodily Changes

Today, there is great interest in gerontology, the study of aging, because there are now more older persons in society than ever before, and their number is expected to rise dramatically. The present goal of gerontology is not necessarily to increase the life span but rather to increase the health span—

that is, the number of years that a person will enjoy good health. Aging comprises multiple ongoing processes; disease and disability are disruptions.

Several factors once thought part of normal human aging have now been shown to be diseases. With aging, the immune system no longer performs as it once did. For example, the thymus gland, one of the central pacemakers of the immune system, gradually decreases in size, and eventually most of it is replaced by fat and connective tissue. The risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases increases among the elderly. An older person exhibiting a weaker response to bacteria and may produce autoantibodies (antibodies which work against his or her own tissues), instead of defending against foreign parasites and aggressors (Weksler, 1990). This problem, if it occurs, shows that the immune system is no longer functioning normally. These immune changes may be responsible for the increased risk among the elderly of sickness and death from infectious diseases. A decline in the hormonal system may affect many different organs of the body. For example, diabetes is a common development in older persons. The pancreas makes insulin, but cells in the body cannot utilize it as effectively as they used to do. Both thyroid-stimulating hormone produced in the pituitary gland and thyroid hormone secreted by the thyroid gland itself show a decline with advancing age. This process is functionally reflected in a decrease in the basal metabolism of as much as 20 percent from age thirty to age seventy. Thus, aging may result in part from the loss of hormonal activities and a decline in the functions they control.

With advancing age, persons tend to have slower reactions to stimuli, wider variations in function, and slower return to resting states. This decline in stability within the body (or homeostasis) is found in a number of body systems. For example, the sensitivity of the baroreceptors, which help maintain a normal blood pressure by changing the heart rate and the tension in blood vessels, declines with age. Likewise, the elderly are prone to being too hot (hyperthermia) or cold (hypothermia) because of a weakened ability to regulate body temperature. A large proportion of age-related problems in the stomach and intestines, such as constipation, are caused and made worse by long-term abuse of laxatives, poor eating habits, not drinking enough fluids, and lack of exercise. Some elderly persons are not aware of the importance to their general health of diet and exercise. For example, diseases involving hardening of the arteries are less prevalent in populations that eat no meat and little fat.

For large populations, increased age is associated with increased variability in most dimensions of health. Thus it is difficult to discriminate between normal and abnormal states. Moreover, even those aging changes considered usual or normal within a defined population do not necessarily happen in a particular aging person.

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