‘ The Melancholy Tracking of Old Age

You guessed – this is not going to be one of our more cheerful postings, though – as always I hope – an honest one. I came upon this phrase about watching the remorseless process of ageing at the same time as I saw an article by Dr.Luisa Dillner of the British Medical Journal publishing group. She describes how the body changes as we get older. Here are some of the signs, familiar to many of us.

The one comforting thing is that it all starts from a very early age. For example skin becomes less elastic at 30 years, ‘crow’s feet’ can appear and skin spots due to melanin deposits begin to show. Muscles get smaller and skin starts to sag whilst for most people hair loses its pigment and is grey for most people by the time they are 50.

Arteries narrow and get stiffer between 20 and 80, their lining getting two or three times as thick, making it harder for the blood to flow through them. So blood pressure increases in the over 50’s. The heart gets less efficient at pumping, and a proportion of its cells die and aren’t replaced.

At 85 the heart can beat only a fifth as fast as for a 20 year old.

Our capacity to take in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide gets worse around the age of 20, and by 70 the surface area in the lungs that do this job is reduced by 15%. Strangely the kidneys grow from 50g to 250g in the first 50 years of our lives, but then get smaller again and therefore their functioning is less reliable. The reason why the sudden change we experience as we move into a light from a dark room, is that pupils get smaller as we age – a 60 year old gets 33% as much light as someone of 20.

And our brains? Reasoning, problem-solving and memory are generally fine, says the doctor, but what she calls ‘information-processing’ is slower, as messages take longer to travel between nerve sells.

She adds that there may be problems turning short-term memory into secondary memory to retrieve later.

I feel I want to end by saying something cheerful! I suppose facing the physical truth about ageing is that it saves us from being anxious about ourselves. What’s happening to my body is what’s happening to everyone else’s. We are part of a community of common experience, much of it good, most of it positive.