What’s behind that shrinking feeling? As a landmark study finds it has a dramatic impact on health, here’s why so many women get smaller with age… and what to do about it
- Swedish researchers found women are more likely to shrink than men and shed around half an inch per decade from age 30 – with serious health repercussions
- Poor posture, weak muscles and ageing can all cause us to lose inches of height
- Exercise, a calcium-rich diet and awareness of our posture can help
Ever looked at yourself in the mirror and thought you were going down in the world? Well no, your eyes are not deceiving you.
Researchers at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, monitored the heights, and health, of thousands of people for decades, and found women are more likely to shrink than men — shedding around half an inch per decade from age 30 — with serious repercussions for their health.
Those who suffered major height loss as they aged were twice as likely to die from heart disease, the study warned this week.
So how can you avoid the mid-life shrink — and what’s the science behind it?
THE SPINAL TRAP
The biggest hit our height takes is through our spine, made up of 24 vertebral bones stacked on top of each other and separated by fluid-filled cartilage discs.
Over time, these intervertebral discs harden and wear away. ‘This happens because the nucleus — the ‘jelly-like’ inner part of the disc — gets squashed and dehydrates,’ says physiotherapist Nell Mead.
‘The vertebrae then rest more on the tougher annulus — the outer part of the disc — which isn’t designed to carry weight. This compresses and shortens the spine.’
Nell says that changes to the spinal structure can happen as early as age 30 — ‘the age at which our ancestors would typically have died’ — and that women are often affected worse than men: ‘Women don’t generally move as much. We tend to have more static jobs.’
The layers of cartilage that cushion the joints in our legs can also wear away, leading to shrinkage.
Unfortunately, rectifying the dehydration isn’t as simple as drinking more water — the liquid we take in tends to be prioritised for our major organs.
Instead, exercise is key.
‘Squashing and stretching the discs with big movements, such as downward dogs in yoga and touching your toes and reaching to the sky, will encourage the discs to absorb water, in much the same way that squeezing a dry sponge when it’s in a glass of water will help it take in more,’ says Nell.
Researchers at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, monitored the heights, and health, of thousands of people for decades, and found women are more likely to shrink than men — shedding around half an inch per decade from age 30 [Stock image]
BONE OF CONTENTION
The vertebrae bones also weaken with age, causing shrinkage and fractures that can affect posture.
This process is exacerbated by osteoporosis, a condition in which bones lose density and weaken. This is more common in women than men because of declining levels of the female hormone oestrogen during the menopause.
‘Osteoporosis leaves you more prone to fractures,’ says Nell. These include a ‘wedge fracture’, which happens when the front of the vertebrae collapses, creating wedge-shaped bone and a humped upper back, known as thoracic kyphosis. It is often associated with menopausal women, says Nell, as well as sufferers of anorexia, who don’t get enough calcium for healthy bones.
‘Bone becomes less dense and smaller in size for women after the menopause, and for men after their 60s,’ adds physiotherapist Chongsu Lee, who says we shrink by about half an inch every ten years from our peak height, aged 30.
I THOUGHT MY HUSBAND GREW – I’D JUST SHRUNK
Jenni Kelly, 69, is a retired administrator who lives in Benfleet, Essex, with her husband Bob, 65, a retired software engineer, and their son Tom, 48. Jenni says:
Jenni and her husband Bob when Jenni was 5ft6.5
I thought I’d just pulled a muscle when I felt my back ‘go’ during a coughing fit while I was suffering from a bout of bronchitis.
But the pain, in my lower back, was absolutely excruciating. I went to the GP, who prescribed strong painkillers and told me to stretch and keep active.
I did as I was told, but I didn’t get any better. Seven months later, in September 2015, I was so desperate with the pain that I paid to see a specialist privately, and he ordered an MRI scan.
I was totally shocked when he told me that the cause of the pain was five fractured vertebrae in my lower (lumbar) spine. Further tests revealed the cause of my fractures was the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.
Jenni and Bob now Jenni is 5ft3
I was surprised, as I’d always done a lot of exercise and eaten a healthy diet. I was given an infusion of drugs to slow down the bone loss and had an operation called a vertebroplasty, where a special type of cement is injected into the fractured vertebrae to relieve pain and restore mobility.
Around Christmas, I joked to my husband Bob that he seemed to be growing taller, and he said that he thought I was getting smaller.
I stood against the kitchen door frame, and he measured me and found my height had dropped by 2½ in. I had lost half an inch in height for each spinal fracture.
It was quite a shock. Two months later, he measured me again and I’d lost another inch.
I used to be 5 ft, 6½ in tall, now I’m 5 ft 3 in. Luckily I haven’t lost any more height since.
I’m now on medication and I take vitamin D and calcium supplements to improve my bone density. I also do lots of yoga, swimming and walking.
I’m doing everything I can and hope it will be enough to protect me.’
Interview by Jo Waters
Eating foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D, such as green leafy vegetables, can help prevent osteoporosis, as can regular weightlifting or weight-bearing exercise.
SIT UP STRAIGHT
With years spent staring at a screen, our posture becomes poor, robbing vital millimetres from our height.
‘When sitting, your back finds itself effectively sandwiched between your head and your buttocks,’ says Chongsu Lee.
‘Muscles overcompensate to maintain the natural curvature of your spine in your neck and back. Over time, those overworked muscles become tight, exacerbating your poor posture.’
Nell adds: ‘The muscles on your chest and neck get weaker as your body adapts to a habitually slouched sitting posture, and the muscles on your back get longer, so you gradually collapse further forward.’
To correct a stoop, Nell recommends practising a ‘starfish pose’ daily. ‘Lie on your back with your arms and legs spread out and a foam roller or rolled towel lengthways under your back for your head and bottom to rest on, to reverse the effects of gravity.’
Chongsu, who has developed a robotic massage device to ease joints, mybackhug.com, recommends regular exercise that promotes balance, such as swimming, jogging and yoga.
While muscles aren’t the main factor in height shrinkage, strong muscles can help stop stooping.
After age 30, we lose 3 per cent to 8 per cent of our muscle mass per decade. Even the muscles in our legs are integral to good posture.
‘Muscles around the shoulders and hips are exquisitely balanced to maintain natural curvatures,’ says Chongsu. In order to keep this balance, muscles in the lower limbs, such as hamstrings and quads, must also be strong, or they will ‘compromise your lower back and hip joints’ curvatures’.
HARD TO STOMACH
The main muscle group to impact on posture, however, is the abdominals.
‘The deep abdominal muscles provide stability for the lower back,’ says Nell.
‘If they’re weak, the pelvis can tilt forward, making you slouch. This affects women a lot more than men, mainly because pregnancy is the biggest cause and many women’s abdominal muscles don’t recover from it.’
She recommends taking Pilates classes a ‘minimum’ of three times a week.
THE FOOT FACTOR
even our feet can affect our height, as with age, their muscle tissue loses elasticity, causing sagging of the arches.
This has been exacerbated during lockdown, says Nell. ‘As people have stopped storming around as much, the muscles and bones in their feet have got weaker. If the arch isn’t strong enough to hold the foot up, it will drop down and make you appear shorter.’
WHAT ABOUT MEN?
Frustratingly, both nature — the average man has twice the upper body strength of the average woman — and outdated societal roles mean men fare better.
Nell says: ‘They’re still more likely to have physical jobs and more chance to play sport during middle-age, while women are more likely to be at home looking after children. This keeps [men’s] cartilage fed, encouraging nutrients to flow in and waste products to flow out, maintaining mobility for longer.’
And with none of the rigours of pregnancy or risks of osteoporosis linked to the menopause, they are less susceptible to shrinkage.
However, men still stand to lose 2 in of height by the age of 80.
How I lost 2 inches… then grew them back!
by Tanith Carey
If you’d asked me in my 30s how tall I was, I’d have confidently declared I was almost 5ft 5in — a medium height for a woman which I was quite happy with.
But then a couple years off my 50th birthday, I was at a routine check-up with my GP and when she measured me, declared I was now 5ft 3in.
‘Don’t worry, it’s quite normal,’ she reassured me. ‘You’re 48. Most women begin to lose height by their late 40s.’
It may have been ‘normal’ but I was horrified. Where had my precious inches gone?
It was a wake-up call that reminded me that as much as we women try to fend off grey hair and wrinkles, we ignore the biggest give-away of all — shrinking height and stooped posture.
And, as the study in the British Medical Journal tells us, height loss is more than cosmetic. It’s life-threatening and women are particularly at risk, losing twice as much in height as men in old age as we’re more prone to the bone-crumbling disease osteoporosis.
The study found that those who suffered major height loss — defined as more than 2cm — were twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, such as stroke or heart attack.
Determined to regain my lost 2in — which was making me looking dumpier and middle-aged — I sought the help of UK posture expert, Noel Kingsley, author of Perfect Poise, Perfect Life.
The reason I’d lost the height, he explained, was down to the way I’d forgotten how to use my spine in a healthy way.
Over the years, this meant instead of being an S shape, it was now more of a hunched over C-shape, making me shorter, too.
At our first session, Noel illustrated this by asking me to stand straight against a wall.
I immediately noticed that the simple act of trying to stand up straight now felt uncomfortable.
The good news, however, was that it was not too late to do something about it.
Learning about the importance of good posture helped Tanith Carey (pictured) regain a lost two inches of height
Over eight weeks, Noel helped me to undo some of the habits I’d built up over the years, with the principles of the Alexander Technique, which teaches awareness of how you use your body.
These were a series of exercises to teach me more control and decompress my spine. Some were basic movements such as learning how to sit and stand correctly, to lengthen my spine and improve my muscle co-ordination.
Others involved standing up against a wall on tiptoes.
While keeping my head high, I was taught how to let my heels drop, allowing the vertebrae to gently pull apart again like an expanding accordion.
After two months of intensive focus, I was amazed to find I had regained 2.5 cm — a whole inch — and had almost gone back to the height of my youth, rising from 161.5 back to 164cm (5ft 4in). That was six years ago.
But the good news is that I have managed to cling to some, if not all, of my progress — and the last time I was measured by the doctor I was 163cm (5ft 3.5in).
Looking back, though, I’d say what has helped me most is the awareness of how I use my body.
As I am always glued to my computer for work, I have bought a platform to raise the height of it to eye level to prevent me from stooping over it.
A few times a week, I also lie on the floor for ten minutes after I have exercised, with my knees bent, to straighten out my spine. As I do so, I have to imagine my shoulders releasing and melting into the floor.
I also take a calcium supplement to help head off the deterioration of my vertebrae.
While I am never going to be Elle Macpherson, it’s good to know that if I keep this up I never need to turn into a hunched-over little old lady. There may be serums for the face — but good posture takes years off you, and will also help you live a longer and healthier life.
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