What structural joint changes are common to the elderly?

We’ll all age at some point in life. As we age, our bodies usually go through various structural changes relating to bones, muscles, joints, and cartilages. These variations often lead the overall changes in body posture and walking patterns. For starters, bones are generally responsible for maintaining body structure, joints facilitate movement, cartilages cushions the bones meeting at the joint area, and muscles provide the strength for movement. Although it’s the brain that controls coordination between all these structures, it’s the change within them that influences both gait and body posture.

Aging, on the other hand, comes with an overall decrease in both biological and physiological functions [1]. These declines generally explain why most elderlies need to use special mobility tools such as gait trainers and stairlifts to get around.

In simple terms, aging weakens these body structures and leads to gradual slowed movement in our golden years.

In case you’ve been wondering, what structural changes are common to the elderly? Then you’re in the right place. Keep reading to find out the most common structural changes to expect as you age and find out some of the prevention tips to help you stay afloat.

Elderly Cartilage Changes

Away from the casual cushioning function stated earlier, cartilages refer to the protective rubber-like structural padding found at the joints where long bones meet.

Normally, these structural components thin away as we age and ligaments shorten, resulting in stiff joints. In the biological sense, aging creates an imbalance between anabolic and catabolic reactions, making the cartilages prone to inflammations [2].

Unfortunately, unaddressed cartilage degeneration often causes arthritis. In case you’re hearing of it for the first time, arthritis is an inflammatory condition that occurs in the joint areas causing a lot of pain and stiffness in the affected region. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [3], approximately 49.6% of Americans aged 65+ years were reported to have doctor-diagnosed arthritis between 2013 and 2015.

Elderly Joint Changes

Body joints generally refer to the parts of the body where bones meet and are joined by cartilages for easy movement. A lifetime of walking, jogging, jumping, and running exerts a lot of pressure on the joint sections, which eventually wears out as we age [4].

Some of the common joint areas that are hit the most include the knees, elbow, ankle, and pelvic. The deterioration of cartilages (the protective padding that we talked about earlier) often leaves your bones bare and unprotected from friction. As expected, you’ll start experiencing sharp pains in the joints once the unprotected bones come in contact during movement. In some instances, this might even cause your joints to swell and lead to arthritis.

If this isn’t addressed in good time, osteophytes might start growing or you’ll end up suffering from a bone spur. These are some of the most common conditions caused by elderly joint changes.

Elderly Bone Changes

We all know what bones are, right? Those firm calcified tissues form our skeleton as well as that of all the other vertebrates. Well, these solid whitish body parts often undergo constant remodeling throughout one’s lifetime, a form of natural balance that maintains the integrity of the overall skeletal structure. Sadly, aging eats away bone tissue and results in unmaintained resorption and formation of the bones [5].

By resorption, I’m referring to the process where bone tissues are broken down at the cellular level to release calcium, which is later absorbed into the blood circulation system.

In general, the elderly usually have low levels of bone mineral content and their bones are more susceptible to osteoporosis [6]. In simpler terms, bones commonly become less dense and more fragile as one ages.

Some of the most usual effects from these changes include the general loss of balance, gait changes, reduced range of movement, and other musculoskeletal issues.

Elderly Muscle Changes

Body muscles are soft body tissues made of numerous layers of protein filaments that contract to produce force and cause movement. Your bicep is a quick example of a body muscle.

Similar to aging effects on cartilages, muscles typically shrink and become weak, as we grow older. The human body generally experiences a reduction in the number of muscle fibers, slower muscle tissue replacements, and lower muscle contraction power [6] as time goes by.

These changes are what make the elderly weaker and less tolerant to exercises. Don’t be overly alarmed when you start becoming easily exhausted in your late 60s.

Age Related Prevention

Just as exercise helps to improve bone density, including a dose of vitamin D and Calcium in your diet will help preserve overall bone mass throughout your elderly life. To prevent adverse effects of elderly structural changes, you must avoid unhealthy eating habits.

The consumption of caffeinated drinks, tobacco products, and alcohol generally contribute to lower bone mineral density. Some of the simplest yet highly effective exercises for preventing age-related structural changes include regular long walks, use of free weights for more strength, and practicing tai chi to improve your balance [7].

Before starting any exercise, you should put on comfortable outfits, warm up before the exercise, hydrate more, and psychologically prepare to listen to how your body will respond to each set of exercises. In case you’re having posture problems, consider using some of the best gait trainers available for more stability especially during exercises.

A combination of these bone resistance exercises [8] is one of the simplest methods to improve and maintain the strength of your bones as well as the overall level of bone mineral density. This way, you won’t have to worry much about any deleterious effects of elderly structural changes. Just remember to boost this with a healthy diet.

Conclusion

It’s common for the body to grow weaker as we get older. You might start getting mild sores and can no longer do some of the things you used to do without help. All these happen due to the structural changes that occur as we age.

Normally, these include changes in the joints, cartilages, muscles, and bones. All these structures will deteriorate as you age making it difficult to walk and stand the same way you used to during your youthful days. To help you prevent adverse structural changes that come with aging, you’ll simply have to consistently eat healthy foods and do regular exercises. In case you notice any warning signs, don’t hesitate to seek medical assistance.

Citations

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17200936
  2. https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/20/3/614/htm
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/arthritis-related-stats.htm
  4. https://now.aapmr.org/age-associated-changes-and-biology-of-aging
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12027537
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920876
  7. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercise-and-aging-can-you-walk-away-from-father-time
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6279907
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