Perfect posture is effortless for a child. But bad posture can begin as early as age 25. If you don’t do anything about it, you’re bound to face a host of cumulative health problems as you age.
If you’ve reached your mid-50s or later, go ahead, measure yourself. Chances are you’ll discover something peculiar. You’ve shrunk. Perhaps just half an inch, perhaps an inch, perhaps even more. So, no big deal. You’ve always wanted to drop a size or two, right? Well, you got it. Unless you take steps to reverse bad posture, by the time you reach your 70s, you’ll likely have lost 2-3 inches in height.
While shrinking an inch or two in itself is nothing to worry about, the processes that cause the reduction in size are something you should care about.
Two main processes are involved in this loss of height. Firstly, as you age, the discs between your vertebrae lose moisture and dry out. Healthy discs act as shock absorbers for the spine and keep the spine flexible. When they dry out, they become less supple and provide less of a cushioning effect. Worse, drier discs change shape and become flatter and thinner, making them more prone to injury and to the kind of degenerative changes that may lead to chronic back pain down the road.
The other huge factor in the shrinking equation is the age-related deterioration of posture, which begins to set in as early as age 25. At that point, the soft tissues begin to weaken and give in to the relentless pull of gravity.
For most people, the first visible signs of a deteriorating posture is a forward head and an exaggerated curvature of the upper spine. And here is the bad news: if you don’t do anything about it, you set yourself up for a host of health problems down the road.
A Plague of the Computer Age
Unfortunately, while the forward-leaning head, rounded shoulders, and sunken chest used to be the signature posture of old age, it is quickly becoming almost universal in modern society. The problems this causes are only just beginning to become recognized.
When the head sits in its natural, balanced position atop your neck, its 10 to 12 pounds of weight is balanced effortlessly atop your spine. When the head begins to shift forward, that load increases by a factor of 10 for every inch the head moves forward. If your head moves forward two inches, it increases the load on your neck and muscles by a whopping 20 pounds!
Since a drooping head and rounded shoulders develop slowly and over time, we don’t feel this extra weight. The body finds ways to compensate for the abnormal leverage on the upper spine. But it compensates in ways that are not that great for your health. The muscles in the neck and upper shoulders tighten up and become stiff and inflexible. The normal curve of the neck begins to flatten as the spine gradually changes its shape to better deal with the excess load. The discs in the neck get compressed and weakened.
Studies have shown that the greater the forward head position, the more likely people are to experience neck or shoulder pain or even chronic tension headaches. The further forward the head is, the worse the pain.
The Bad Posture Cascade
Still, these issues are nothing compared to the problems a hunched over, drooping posture creates as we grow older. A seriously rounded back is a contributing factor to almost every single age-related issue you don’t want.
In medical terms, as the hunched, forward-rounded posture become worse with age, it is referred to as hyperkyphosis. Hyperkyphosis develops when the muscles and other soft tissues can no longer hold up the weight of the head and torso, and the chest and spine gradually cave into the hunched-over posture of old age. Fully developed, it becomes the dreaded dowager’s hump.
Only in recent years have researchers really begun to chart the effects of this posture in older people. What they are discovering is pretty remarkable.
You’ve heard about how important it is to prevent osteoporosis to avoid fractures as you get older. So here’s the interesting part: a slumped forward posture—if allowed to mature into the hyperkyphosis of old age—puts you at risk for the exact same issues as osteoporosis. And, not only that—it is a contributing factor to a host of other health issues as well.
People with hyperkyphosis are more likely to have difficulty performing simple daily tasks like bathing and washing themselves. They are also more likely to fall and hurt themselves. All of this paves the road to the nursing home.
Hyperkyphosis has also been found to be a risk factor for fractures of the hip, leg, wrist, shoulder, and arm. The risk is greater the more hunched the back is. It is independent of bone mass density, which suggests that hyperkyphotic slumping is a separate risk factor for suffering fractures, on par with osteoporosis.
It doesn’t stop there, however. When a person is constantly stooped forward, it puts tremendous pressure on the chest and lung cavity. This in turns restricts breathing capacity or creates shortness of breath. The breath is the source of vital, life-giving oxygen to all the cells of the body. In the elderly, shortness of breath leads to a host of health issues, including increased anxiety and depression, reduced happiness, and, again, reduced ability to undertake normal daily functions.
Some researchers claim that shortness of breath is a main factor of general health deterioration in elderly. Apart from making a person feel miserable, shortness of breath also undermines the body’s vital functions. The elderly who suffer from moderate to severe shortness of breath are more likely to die from cardiovascular or lung disease.
With all of this going on, it’s not a surprise that people with hyperkyphosis die earlier than their peers. Studies have shown that older men and women with a forward-hunched posture have higher death rates; in one study they had a 44 percent greater rate of mortality.
So why haven’t you heard about this before? Until recently, hyperkyphosis has been largely ignored, because it was assumed that it was caused by osteoporosis. Doctors believed that it resulted from tiny fractures of the vertebrae, which in turn caused the spine to collapse forward into a dowager’s hump.
However, recent research shows that hyperkyphosis often develops without vertebral fractures. In fact, about two-thirds of older people with hyperkyphosis don’t have any fractures of the spine.
Keeping Your Posture Youthful
If you start out with a good posture, the deterioration of posture won’t really be noticeable until around age 45 to 50, when the first signs of aging become apparent. If you already have a slumped over posture, however, the health of your back will deteriorate even faster once aging undermines your body’s ability to resist the downward pull of gravity.
Posture is an important dimension of fitness that you can’t afford to ignore. If you already have an exercise routine, it’s important to add a posture-balancing component to it. Fitness routines like Pilates and yoga that build core strength are a great place to start. Yoga is particularly useful because it trains the spine to keep functioning in all six planes of motion. This in turn keeps the discs more lubricated and moist—counteracting the drying out of the discs that is the other factor in losing height.
Nothing has greater impact on your posture than your day-to-day habits, so you can get great results from keeping awareness of your posture throughout the day. It takes time and patience to rebuild posture. You have to build new muscle mass to hold you upright and reshape tissues that have frozen into the wrong shape.
However, the simple act of straightening up throughout the day can change your life. Literally. As you regain your normal spinal curves and open up your posture, you will begin to feel better all over. You will also be laying a safer foundation for your long-term health. As you develop a youthful posture, your body will become increasingly attractive, graceful, and ageless. It’s well worth the time and attention.
Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., is a massage and yoga therapist specializing in back issues. She teaches yoga workshops for back and posture health in Southeast Iowa, including Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, together with her husband, Terry Smith, Ph.D. Learn more at www.YogaforaHealthyBack.com.