Do You Really Shrink When You Get Older?

If you've ever seen an aging loved one or friend after a few years have passed, you may have noticed that they seem a little shorter. That's not just an illusion, and it can start happening earlier than you might think.

Early in life, our bones are prevented from rubbing together by a layer of cushiony cartilage. Over time this wears out and thins, causing the space between our bones to contract, according to the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences. As the space between the vertebra in our spine shrinks, we lose height. It's normal for men to lose about an inch of height between the ages of 30 and 70, and women can lose up to two inches.

If you lose more height, or if you lose one to two inches in just one year, it's time to consult with your doctor. That's because you may be at risk of osteoporosis, a disease that degrades bone and puts you at risk of fractures.

Best practices for bone health

Osteoporosis causes weakening in the structure of the bone, which allows small fractures to develop. The bone is vulnerable to a large break if it is stressed, but is also capable of collapsing if multiple small fractures develop together, according to WebMD.

The good news is, osteoporosis can be treated with medication, diet, exercise, and weight management. And if you don't yet have osteoporosis, you can work to prevent it from developing. Be sure to eat a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D. Aim for 1,000 mg of calcium if you're a woman under 50 years old, or a man 51-70 years old. For women 51-70, try to get 1,200 mg of calcium (via Cleveland Clinic). For vitamin D, try to get 800-100 IU per day if you're over age 50 (via Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management).

Also, weight bearing exercises and cardio help to strengthen bones. And cut back on unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking, alcohol, and caffeine, which all eat away at bone.

Unfortunately, losing a bit of height is a normal part of aging, but with a little effort, it doesn't have to come along with a broken hip.