Age related changes:

body, mind and lifestyle

This fact sheet aims to provide information on changes to body, mind and lifestyle with ageing.

What changes with age and why?

Many physiological changes take place as we age; there is a natural decline in body composition, metabolism, and the immune system. Changes are affected by many factors e.g. genetics, physical activity, nutrition, prescription and non-prescription drugs, physical stress (e.g. smoking, excess alcohol, pain, and illness), and psychological stress (e.g. work, divorce, and grief). Most of these factors differ between individuals and some are life choices e.g. smoking and excess alcohol.provide the body with energy.

Did you know?

The brain and nerve cells are the only cells in the body that cannot regenerate. Once brain cells are damaged, they are not replaced.

Hormonal and metabolic changes

Our basal metabolism (energy required for core bodily function) is reduced, leading to reduced energy requirements. In addition, glucose and fat metabolism are altered: it becomes more difficult to regulate glucose levels (insulin resistance) and to lose fat. The metabolism of other nutrients is also altered (see “The gastrointestinal tract”), and hormonal changes contribute to changes in body composition and inflammation.

Body composition

(sarcopenia) and bone mass (osteopenia, which can lead to osteoporosis). This affects strength and balance, increasing the risk of falls and fractures. Physical activity is ultimately reduced, contributing further to the decrease in our energy requirements. Having adequate intakes of good quality protein, vitamin D and calcium, and more importantly, undertaking regular physical activity are crucial in
preventing these changes.

Immune system

The immune system becomes progressively overactive but less efficient. Our immune system mass declines (thymus, bone marrow), which means we are at a higher risk of bacterial or viral infections; we also develop chronic low-grade inflammation, which contributes to the development of diseases, such as arthritis, but also type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

The gastro-intestinal tract

The gastro-intestinal tract is altered with age at all levels: In the nose and mouth, there is a reduction in the sense of smell and taste, gum recession and sometimes difficulty in swallowing, which can alter our appetite and/or food intake. Our stomach, pancreas and gut become more rigid, and digestive enzymes become less active. This affects the breakdown and absorption of many vitamins and minerals, and slows down food transit, which can lead to constipation and contribute to reduced appetite.

The cardiovascular syste

With our metabolism slowing down, heart rate also slows down. Vessels becomes stiffer, blood pressure and blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) increase, leading to a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

The brain and nervous system

become less elastic, which may affect hearing and speech, memory and cognitive function, or motor skills (balance and posture). Later, this can lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease.

Oxidative stress

Oxidative stress is characterised by an imbalance between pro-oxidants (“free radicals”) and anti-oxidants in the body. Free radicals accumulate in the body as we get older, which leads to tissue damage, potentially affecting many organs and systems (brain, lung, eye, joint, skin, kidney, immune, etc.).

Psychological changes

Psychological changes take place with ageing; many are because of physiological changes. The main changes may include:

  • Depression
  • Reduced ability to complete simple tasks
  • Reduced confidence and independence
  • Loneliness
  • Reduced motivation to cook (and eat)

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes with ageing may occur due to physiological and/or psychological changes however, some will occur due to changing economic or social factors. The main changes may include:

  • Lack of funds to live well and eat healthily (16% of
    older adults live in poverty)
  • Reduction in physical activity
  • Living alone
  • Living in a nursing home or hospital

Nutrition implications

Good nutrition, and a healthy lifestyle, can slow the effects of ageing however, many of the changes described here influence the ability to consume, absorb and metabolise all the nutrients required to age healthily. The amount of energy required with age reduces, as does appetite however, the requirements for vitamins and minerals remains similar to those for younger adults. This makes obtaining enough of key nutrients more difficult with age; older adults need to include a good range of nutrient dense foods in their diet while minimising energy rich, but nutrient poor foods e.g. alcohol, foods high in fat and/or sugar.