Bones and muscles and ageing

Nothing causes so much pain and misery as the conditions which affect old people’s joints and bones. The once tightly packed bone fibres become less dense from the age of about 45. The process is more marked in women than in men, especially after the hormonal changes of the menopause. This bone loss or osteoporosis may cause chronic backache, and one sign of the condition is loss of height, as the spinal column loses material. (This is not to be confused with the normal loss of height that occurs in old age – up to 5cm from age 20 to age 60. This is largely caused by shrinkage of the cartilage in the intervertebral discs).

Treatment of osteoporosis is difficult: women are sometimes given oestrogens to slow up the process. Sufficient proteins and minerals in nutrition is a first priority to keep osteoporosis at the lowest possible level. Osteoporosis is partly responsible for the high number of broken bones in old people because their bones are weaker and more brittle. As we get older the cartilage of our joints becomes thinner, and movement damages the joint still further. When the resultant condition, osteoarthrosis, occurs in the hands the fingers become virtually immobile. In larger joints such as the hip, the condition can make walking impossible. One increasingly popular modern solution is that of total hip replacement, in which an artificial joint is surgically inserted. This operation often has an amazing effect on both mobility and morale. Muscles lose their strength with increasing age. This can take the form of wasting, especially when a limb is not used, or decreased power on repeated contraction. Keeping active is a remarkable preventative for these conditions, which probably account for more pain and social isolation than any of the cancerous conditions people so greatly fear.

Sex

Before the 1960s the American sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) observed that healthy people in the ninth decade of life could still partake of and enjoy sexual activity. However, most men of 50 have sex at about half the rate they did when 25. By the age of 80, three out of four men are impotent – incapable of achieving an erection. This may result from a general decline in strength and fitness and also the hardening of the arteries in the lower half of the abdomen which may decrease the flow of blood required to sustain an erection.