Aging and Changes: What Active Athletes Need to Know

19th February 2020
Growing older brings several changes. Of course, how and when these aging changes present depend on each individual. Here’s what you should know.

Aging changes vary from one individual to another. Nevertheless, there are some general guidelines that older athletes should be aware of.

It’s important to understand how your body changes with time. In turn, this will allow you to adapt your everyday life to these new needs. Of course, thanks to medical and technological innovations, aging in the twentieth century is relatively easy. If you follow a healthy lifestyle you’ll have a longer, more fulfilling life.

Aging changes in body composition

The main aging change among all living beings is in body composition. As you become older, the proportion of muscle and fats change. Thus, fat mass and visceral fat increase, while lean muscle mass decreases. Besides losing muscle mass, there are other conditions older athletes need to be aware of:

Sarcopenia

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sarcopenia is:

The reduction in skeletal muscle mass due to aging.

As such, this is a natural process. Because of this, as you age, it’s likely that you’ll also lose muscle mass, strength, and function. This can have a negative effect on your overall quality of life!

If you don’t do anything about it, sarcopenia can lead to mobility reduction, increase your risk of falls and alter your metabolic rate.

Of course, sarcopenia accelerates if you decrease physical activity. Nevertheless, even older athletes can show signs of it. This means that there’s probably a genetic component to it on top of your activity level.

Now, doctors don’t have a unified method of detecting or diagnosing sarcopenia. Thus, there isn’t a specific amount of lost muscle you need to have for a diagnosis. Of course, any muscle loss is important! As you lose muscle you’ll also lose strength and mobility.

Nevertheless, in the fourth decade of life, doctors can detect evidence of sarcopenia. Then, the process accelerates approximately after you’re 75 years old and over.

Sarcopenia and a sedentary lifestyle

Sarcopenia can also happen among younger people, especially among obese individuals. In fact, excessive adipose tissue can cause you to lose lean muscle mass. Thus, excess weight and reduced muscle mass contribute to decreased physical activity, which, in turn, accelerates sarcopenia. It’s a vicious circle!

A sedentary lifestyle can lead to so-called sedentary death syndrome. This is an accumulation of health problems that pose a threat to life and are related to a sedentary lifestyle.

So, what exactly is a sedentary lifestyle? Simply put, it’s when you’re burning less than 200 calories per day due to physical activity. This has many consequences: higher risks of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia, obesity, and even death.

Aging also causes problems linked to people's food.

Aging changes also affect taste and smell

It’s fairly common for older people to become picky eaters. This is because our senses become dull, and if the food doesn’t taste as good as before, it’s easier not to eat enough.

Evidently, sensory losses affect people in varying degrees, at different rates and at different ages. Genetics, environment and lifestyle are involved in the deterioration of sensory faculties.

Thus, alterations in the sense of taste, smell, and touch that are related to age can lead to loss of appetite, inadequate food choices and low nutritional intake. Since taste and smell thresholds are high, older people may be tempted to over-season foods, especially by adding more salt, something that can have a negative effect on many older people.

Although some changes are attributable to aging, many of the changes in sensory perception are due to medication. Taste and smell stimulate metabolic processes such as the secretion of saliva, gastric acid or pancreatic juices and increase plasma insulin levels. Therefore, a lower sensory stimulation can also prevent such mechanisms.

On the other hand, mouth issues are common as well. Of course, poor oral hygiene compromises diet and nutrition. Loss of teeth, the use of dentures and xerostomia – dry mouth syndrome – can lead to chewing and swallowing difficulties.

Thus, older people with these mouth problems often opt for soft and easily chewed foods. In addition, they tend to avoid certain nutritionally richer options, such as whole grains, fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats.

Aging and gastrointestinal disturbances

Of course, gastrointestinal changes can negatively affect the nutrient intake of the individual. This is especially frequent among older people, whose organs start to age as well.

For example, many older people have dysphagia. This dysfunction implies trouble swallowing. In turn, this is usually associated with neurological diseases and aging. Dysphagia increases the risk of aspiration pneumonia, an infection caused by the entry of fluid or food into the lungs. Dense liquids and modified textured foods can help people with dysphagia to eat safely.

With age, it’s also common to have other gastric abnormalities. Because of it, older people are more prone to have ulcers, gastritis and gastrointestinal cancers.

The sport produces great benefits for the elderly.

Gastritis causes inflammation and pain, delayed gastric emptying and discomfort. All of this affects the bioavailability of essential nutrients. For older people, difficulty absorbing calcium and zinc will increase the risk of developing chronic deficiency diseases, such as osteoporosis.

Problems with nutrient absorption

Besides gastritis, the elderly also can present achlorhydria. This is when your stomach doesn’t make enough acid to digest food. This also makes it more difficult to absorb vitamin B12, which can be dangerous for their health.

Because of this, and even though B12 can be stored in the liver, it’s common to have deficiencies. Vitamin B12 deficiency is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms resemble those of Alzheimer’s or other chronic diseases.

Finally, diverticulosis and constipation are common during aging changes. The main causes of constipation are insufficient fluid intake, lack of physical activity and low fiber intake with diet. Certain medications also cause constipation.

In short, maintaining healthy habits and taking care of health over the years is a primary need to preserve well-being despite aging.

  • Sociedad Española de Geriatría y Gerontología. 2007. Guía de buena práctica clínica en Geriatría. Anciano afecto a la fractura de Cadera. Madrid: SEGG
  • Gregorio PG et al. Nutrición en el anciano. Guia Nestle. Sociendad Española de Geriatria.