Yep, most of us knew this without reading a study. We just had to look at our grannies as we grew up and they grew down, but it is nice to know that we are not likely to melt into the ground like the Wicked Witch of the West. And if I end up three inches shorter in my 80’s, well, I was always short near the end of the month, so it makes sense to be short near the end of the lifespan.
So where do the inches go? First and most important: The disks between the vertebrae in the spine flatten out over the years. Also, tummy muscles weaken and bulge out, leading to rotten posture and the shortening of the human in question. Also, feet can flatten and the pads of the feet may get thinner which will make us ever so slightly shorter and ever so interested in shoes with thick protective soles. We walk around town looking like mountaineers who lost their way to Whitney. But me, I never met a polyurethane outsole I couldn’t love and take home.
Are there ways to fight gravity?
Yes, regular weight-bearing exercises help preserve height, meaning exercise on your bedroom trapeze won’t count. Israeli researchers, studying more than 2,000 subjects, found that men and women who engaged in vigorous aerobic activity lost only about half as many inches in height as those who adopted the couch slouch life in middle age or who never exercised at all. It will be interesting to see how the texting generation ends up at 80 with only thumb-bearing exercise. They may be small enough to fit in a shoebox.
Other ways to preserve height: Spinal surgeon Dr. Roger Hartl suggests doing all one can to preserve the disks between the vertebrae. That means improving microcirculation to the disks by avoiding obesity, smoking and diabetes, a trio I’ve come to regard as the three horseman of the health apocalypse.
Of course there are also the usual recommendations to promote bone health by adequate calcium and vitamin D. Any height loss that is more extreme, painful or faster than is common — see the stats above — should be investigated by a health professional. A bone density test may be ordered. And, just to cover your bases, it may be wise to bring up the issue of shrinkage next time at the doc’s so the fact of your disappearance gets on the chart.
If you have a primary care doc who is recording your height as well as your weight, give him or her a gold star. If that isn’t happening, use the old pencil mark on the door frame approach. It worked for your kids as they grew up. It can work for you as you grow down.
But don’t get into a funk over predictable height loss that is not associated with serious health issues. Humans in earlier ages didn’t live long enough to have these problems. The longer we live, the shorter we get. It’s a trade-off: life for height.
Who wouldn’t take it?