Aging affects the bones, muscles, and discs surrounding the spine, resulting in changes in posture, body mechanics, and function.
As we age, the intervertebral discs, which provide shock absorption for the spine, harden and lose their flexibility. These changes result in decreased height of the spine and increased forward curvature of the upper back, termed kyphosis. Loss of body height and a change in walking pattern may also occur. Generally, one-half inch of height is lost every 10 years after the age of 40 and loss of height occurs more rapidly after the age of 70 with an individual losing between 1 to 3 inches of height in their lifetime.
Bone density decreases during the aging process, as well. Decreased production of bone or increased uptake of bone in the body results in varying degrees of low bone mass known as osteopenia or osteoporosis and occurs because of decreased levels of calcium in the body. Low bone mass places individuals at an increased risk for compression fractures of the spine, especially in those over the age of 50 and post-menopausal women.
Loss of muscle mass occurs as we age as muscle is replaced by fat and fibrous tissue. This results in decreased strength of the muscles and reduces the support that the muscles provide for the spine, also increasing the forward curvature of the spine.
It’s important to utilize proper posture and body mechanics to reduce the risk of injury that an aging spine can incur due to poor posture and improper lifting technique. To maintain proper posture in sitting and standing, imagine a plumb line positioned along the side of your body. Your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should connect in a straight line down your body. You may need to pull your head and shoulders back, pull in your stomach, and make sure that your weight is distributed on the balls of your feet to position your body in better alignment. Avoid sleeping on your stomach and place a pillow between your legs when sleeping on your side or under your legs if you sleep on your back.
Practicing correct posture and following the guidelines listed below for proper lifting will improve alignment and reduce stress on the structures of the spine, whether caring for an elderly spouse, picking up a grandchild, or lifting a bag of groceries.
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