Of all the trials and tribulations that come with ageing, there is one that's spoken about less than the rest: shrinking.
For some, losing a couple of inches of height is one of the many inconveniences of getting older – but research suggests that shrinkage can give us important warnings for our health too.
According to a 2021 study undertaken by Swedish researchers, women who shrink by an inch or more in their 50s are more than twice as likely to die of a stroke than someone who does not lose any height. Women with a major height loss were also 2.14 times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
Although the stooped figures on the elderly traffic signs seem like a long way off, you might be surprised to learn that we start to lose height as early as our 40s – about half an inch each decade, according to Harvard Medical School in 2015. This is largely down to our spine compressing. As we age, the gel-like disks between our vertebrae lose fluid, and thin out, causing us to shrink.
A gradual decline in height might also be a sign of osteoporosis, according to the Office on Women’s Health. One study of more than 3,000 adults published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research in 2011 found that women over the 70 who lose two or more inches in two years are 21 per cent more likely to fracture a hip in the next two years than women who shrink less.
Partly, this is down to hormones, explains Emily Gilliland, a personal trainer who specialises in women’s health. “Oestrogen has a protective effect on our bones and muscles. When women go through menopause, levels of oestrogen drastically decline, making women more likely to develop conditions such as osteoporosis,” she says.
Thankfully, though, there are ways to slow down midlife shrinkage. Read on to find out how...
Workouts that include weight lifting and resistance bands are particularly effective at preventing shrinkage, says Gilliland. She explains that this type of exercise creates “micro-tears” in the muscle that heal, and strengthen, the muscles. “It puts a similar pressure on the bones, which stimulates the bone building cells. This battles against the loss of bone density which happens naturally as we age," she says.
Personal trainer Matt Roberts agrees. He says that while many people over the age of 50 shy away from using heavy resistance training, it is actually one of the single most important things that can be done to maintain, and even build, bone density. “Decreased bone density and the effects of osteoporosis cause reductions in height over time and these can in many cases be mitigated,” he says. “Muscular-skeletal strengthening and mobility is vital for retaining height, strong bone structures and maintenance of a healthy working cardiovascular system.”
In a study of more than 2,000 men and women between 1965 and 1995, researchers in Israel found that those who exercised, either throughout their lives or just after they turned 40, lost about half as much height as those who had never exercised or stopped working out during middle age.
Yoga and pilates
With many of us clocking up long hours hunched over our computers, it's easy to get into the habit of slouching at our desk. However, poor posture can cause your spine to curve – a condition known as hyperkyphosis – which can contribute to shrinkage later down the line.
There is evidence to suggest that yoga might help reduce spinal curvature, although more research needs to be done to establish whether it can prevent the condition altogether. “Pilates and yoga are excellent for core strength and consequently supporting your back,” says Gilliland.
Hyperkyphosis often occurs as a result of a loss of muscle tone in the abdominals, so having a strong core may help to prevent, or ease, the condition. Incorporating stretches into your workout routine, such as child’s pose, glute bridges, and supermans, will also help you to retain some height by improving your posture, and flexibility.
Having oily fish and greens in your diet
Both calcium and vitamin D are used as medications to help prevent fractures against osteoporosis, so incorporating them into your diet as you approach midlife is key. On average, women need 1,000 mg of calcium a day and men need 1,200mg. The evidence around calcium supplements is mixed, so most experts agree that the best source of the mineral comes from food – dairy, almonds, broccoli, kale, salmon and tofu are all excellent sources.
Meanwhile, vitamin D is important for keeping bones and teeth healthy because it increases the absorption of calcium in the intestines. Most women need 600 IU of the vitamin a day, while women older than 70 need 800 IU. Fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel, and salmon, beef liver, cheese and egg yolks are all good sources of vitamin D.
A good education – and not smoking
Interestingly, though, there are variables other than gravity and age that play a part in shrinkage. A 2013 study found that city dwellers shrink less than rural folk. Illiterate men and women lost .9 and .6 cm more, respectively, than men and women who were better educated.
Other lifestyle factors that take a toll on our bones, such as drinking, smoking and inactivity, have also been linked to shrinkage. One Canadian study published in 2008 found that teenage boys who smoke are, on average, 2.54cm shorter than non-smokers.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.