When we say older people shrink, we don't mean they become tiny enough to fit in your pocket! We just mean that it's common for older people to become a little shorter over time. It isn't dramatic or sudden. It takes place over years and may add up to only an inch or so off of their adult height (maybe a little more, maybe less). This kind of shrinking can't be reversed, although people can slow or stop this process. But why does shrinking happen at all?
Gravity (that force that keeps your feet on the ground) takes hold, and the disks, or cushions between the bones in the spine, get compressed over time. The back bones, called vertebrae (say: VUR-tuh-bray), end up pressing closer together, which makes a person lose a little height and become shorter.
Another reason why some older people shrink is because of osteoporosis (say: oss-tee-oh-puh-RO-sis). Osteoporosis occurs when bone is broken down and not enough new bone material is made. Over time, bone is said to be lost because it's not being replaced. Bones become smaller and weaker and can easily break if someone with osteoporosis is injured.
Older people — especially women, who generally have smaller and lighter bones to begin with — are more likely to develop osteoporosis. As years go by, a person with osteoporosis can get small breaks in bones that are called compression fractures. These breaks cause collapse of the vertebrae and over time the person with osteoporosis can become hunched over or stooped.
Smoking and drinking alcohol can make this problem worse. Want to do something right now to build strong bones? Take these two steps. They're smart ideas for kids and adults.
Did you know that every day you shrink a little, too? You aren't as tall at the end of the day as you are at the beginning. That's because as the day goes on, water in the disks of the spine gets compressed (squeezed) due to gravity, making you just a tiny bit shorter. Don't worry, though. Once you get a good night's rest, your body recovers, and the next morning, you're standing tall again!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013
|BrainPop This is a great site for kids with informational movies about science, anatomy, weather, and more.|
|Powerful Girls Have Powerful Bones - The National Bone Health Campaign This site, designed for girls ages 9 to 12, teaches how to get and keep strong, healthy bones for life.|
|The National Osteoporosis Foundation This site educates the public about osteoporosis, prevention, and news and stories affecting bone health.|
|Milk Matters (for kids) This site, created by the National Institutes of Health, aims to increase awareness about the importance of calcium in the diets of tweens and teens. Eating and drinking calcium-rich foods is especially important to 11- to 15-year-olds because bones grow fast during those years.|
|Minerals Just like vitamins, minerals help your body grow, develop, and stay healthy. Find out more about minerals in this article for kids.|
|Flash Interactive: Body Basics: Bones Where would you be without your bones? Learn more about the skeletal system in this article for kids.|
|Scoliosis The word scoliosis means a curve in the spine. You may know someone with scoliosis - read our article for kids to find out more.|
|Your Bones Where would you be without your bones? Learn more about the skeletal system in this article for kids.|
|Osteoporosis Osteoporosis means that someone's bones are weakened. Find out more in this article for kids.|
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