A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Coming up short? 3 reasons you shrink as you age

Illustration - A woman shrinking as she ages - Shrinking with age

Osteoporosis, which is more common in women than men, can cause you to lose height.

Is grandma getting shorter? We’ve all seen it, and no, it’s not an illusion. People shrink as they age. It seems strange, but there are simple scientific explanations why you get smaller as you get older.

It’s all in the discs

Over time, discs in the back, which act as shock absorbers and are filled with a gel-like fluid, begin to dehydrate. This process causes the discs to shrink, and the spinal column compresses.

“There’s really nothing you can do about discs dehydrating,” said Alexis Berg, an orthopedic surgery physician assistant at Marshfield Clinic. “It’s just something we all go through.”

Osteoporosis can play a role

Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become weaker. Bone weakness or fragility can cause compression fractures in the back, Berg said.

“Compression fractures aren’t from trauma. You just get these little micro fractures in your vertebrae, which can cause curvature in your spine,” Berg said. “This will cause you to lose height.”

Women are more likely than men to get osteoporosis.

Muscles go missing

As we age, it’s common to lose muscle. Losing muscle in your core can negatively affect your posture.

“If you lose that muscle tone, you can get a stooped or hunched over posture, which obviously makes you shorter,” Berg said.

Flattening of feet as you age also can cause small decreases in height.

When do we start shrinking?

Berg said, in general, people start to shrink in their 40s.

“You lose about ¼ to ½ inch each decade,” Berg said. She added that women tend to shrink more than men.

What’s the downside of shrinking?

Conditions that cause shrinking, like osteoporosis or loss of muscle mass, can be painful. Osteoporosis can lead to compression fractures and loss of muscle mass can lead to more strain on your back, causing back pain.

How to slow the shrinking process

Berg advised weight-bearing exercise to help strengthen your bones and muscles. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D also can help bolster your bones. Too much alcohol and smoking are bad for bone health.

Stronger bones and muscles mean less chance for the factors that cause us to shrink to take root.

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