Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 56° Partly Cloudy
News >  Features

Healthy aging: Fighting low metabolism, spicy rebellion, hormones and other body changes

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 17, 2021

Aging brings on the inevitable, like wrinkles and gray hair. Inwardly, advancing years cause other unwelcome changes, but you can put up a fight.

Suddenly, you can’t eat spicy foods. Your metabolism hits the brakes. It’s tougher to lose weight. Yes, this happens with age as the organs get older and we slowly lose muscle mass, among other factors.

“Things start to happen actually in our 30s, and especially if someone is less active,” said Jen Ropp, a MultiCare registered dietitian and nutritionist. That’s because muscle loss starts during that 30s decade, but changes get more dramatic in our 50s, she said.

“We lose percentages of our metabolism pretty significantly between our 30s and 80s.”

“Even weight gain itself can start to change how we metabolize and absorb different pieces of what we consume. It’s even more important to pick foods high in nutritional value because we want to make sure we’re able to absorb the nutrition we need.”

The Mayo Clinic concurs in its article “Aging: What to Expect,” ranging from weight gain to digestive changes. “How your body burns calories (metabolism) slows down as you age,” the report says. “If you decrease activities as you age, but continue to eat the same as usual, you’ll gain weight.”

To offset the slide, consider how much and what you eat because most people require fewer daily calories by their 60s, 70s and 80s for the body’s functions, Ropp said. Staying active helps, as well.

Lactose or spicy rebellion

The small intestine produces lactase, an enzyme that helps break down lactose, the milk sugar. As the small intestine ages, sometimes it can’t make the same amount of lactase it used to, Ropp said. That tends to run in families, too.

Ask your doctor if you suspect a new dairy sensitivity causing digestive issues, or to rule out anything more serious, according to the Mayo Clinic. If confirmed, you might have to use reduced lactose dairy products or consume lactose-free.

When spicier foods object, that also can be the digestive system’s aging. It’s easy to forget that internal organs also age, impacting how our body absorbs and uses food, Ropp said. Eating a healthier diet overall can help. We have stomach acids and enzymes that help break down food and move things along, she added, but the digestive system doesn’t make as much of those in senior years, so food can build up in your stomach – and hence reflux.

“Also, you sometimes can’t handle eating as much at one time,” Ropp said. “You might have been able to eat that full Mexican meal and had no trouble when you were younger because your younger stomach could handle digesting that much at once. But as you get older, your stomach just like everything ages and isn’t as able to keep up.”

Ways to help counteract include eating more foods with fiber, considering probiotics and decreasing the amount of inflammatory foods you eat, such as fatty meat, to keep gut tissues healthier longer. “Take in more foods with soluble fiber like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

The Mayo Clinic added that age-related structural changes in the large intestine can result in more constipation, although other culprits are lack of exercise, not drinking enough fluids and a lower-fiber diet. Medications and supplements can affect that. The article urged high-fiber foods, plenty of fluids, physical activity and regular bathroom visits.

Waist gain and muscle loss

Ropp said it helps as much as possible to avoid weight gain around the middle as we age. That factor alone affects metabolism, but it has a health significance. Men are at greater risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes at a waist measurement greater than 40 inches, and for women, more than 35 inches.

Watch your calorie intake and avoid a cycle, she said. “As we get older, especially if you tend to put on weight around the middle, that can actually decrease how well you handle sugars and carbohydrates.”

Simply put, a carbohydrate intolerance can develop later in life and affects how the body uses sugars and carbs. “If you tend to put on weight around your middle, that can change what your body decides to do with sugar, whether it is used for energy or stored for later, which ends up being more weight around your middle. Your body can’t handle as much as when you were younger.”

“Try to avoid the weight gain that tends to happen as you get older because it makes it more difficult to metabolize things correctly.”

Vitamin D might be less efficiently absorbed by the body with age, so ensure you’re getting enough, “especially, again, if you have let yourself gain extra weight around the middle,” she said. Also, maintain more muscle mass through exercise while minimizing fat gain. Both can help you avoid carbohydrate intolerance and a reduction in vitamin D absorption, Ropp added. “That’s why exercise can be considered kind of anti-aging, especially a mix of aerobic and muscle-type exercise.”

“Even more important or as important as what you see happening on the scale is what you see happening around your waist. Sometimes that can be a better indicator of health and maintaining a healthy weight. Pay attention if that’s changing. It’s your body’s way of saying what it can or can’t handle calorie-wise for your age and activity level.”

Cardiovascular stiffening

The Mayo Clinic said stiffening of the blood vessels and arteries is the most common age change in the cardiovascular system, causing the heart to work harder to pump blood.

“The heart muscles change to adjust to the increased workload. Your heart rate at rest will stay about the same, but it won’t increase during activities as much as it used to. These changes increase the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) and other cardiovascular problems.”

Again, counteract with physical activity and a healthy diet, along with pledges to quit smoking if you do, manage stress and get enough sleep.

Hormonal change

As women age, they produce less estrogen, which has a protective effect on where the body decides to put weight, Ropp said. You might even start to notice it in premenopause, with more weight around the middle.

“As you lose the estrogen, your body tends to put it more around the middle,” Ropp said. “It can also affect how you handle extra sugar and carbohydrates because hormones are deciding where those extra calories go or don’t go.”

Inactive men can have a similar issue, she said. “Their aging decreases their metabolism, but they also start sometimes to produce less testosterone, which then leads to loss in muscle. Muscle is much better at using calories than non-muscle fat tissue.”

To fight back, get enough sleep to aid metabolism, along with regular exercise, fewer calories and better nutrition. Don’t give up on metabolism. “You don’t have to agree to that,” Ropp said. “You can go down fighting. Not all hope is lost as you get older.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.