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A Woman’s Changing Body

Nov 3 2022
By Dr. Diane Downing
12 min read
Older woman by ocean with scarf wrapped around her arms as she raises them up with her head back and eyes closed.

Your likes, dislikes, and perspectives have undoubtedly changed over time. You likely have noticed that your body has, too.

In a society that idealizes the young and thin, regular body changes seen during aging are often unwelcome. Confronted with the impossible task of defying time, some women turn to cosmetics and plastic surgery. Others become preoccupied with their weight and develop a negative body image. This can lower self-esteem and lead to social withdrawal. Understanding your body's natural aging process, however, can help. It's true that normal aging involves a gradual decline in function and in the body's ability to repair itself. Health problems and medications can accelerate these changes. But you can adjust your wellness routine to keep your body and mind in working order as long as you can. Caring for your body, mind, and spirit is essential throughout every moment of life’s journey.

How Your Weight Changes with Age

What happens to your body's weight as you age? One noticeable change for women as they age is an increase in body fat. It is common to see a decrease in muscle mass, causing your body to feel less strong than it did in your youth. Women may also develop wrinkles from reduced elasticity and firmness of their skin, or thin and graying hair. While men often stop gaining body fat around 55, weight gain tends to continue in women until the age of 65, primarily because metabolism slows with aging, making it harder to maintain or lose weight after age 60. On women, this excess weight shifts from the hips and thighs to the torso after menopause.

Research shows that unhealthy belly fat is associated with increased inflammation, heart disease, and diabetes. You can prevent this, however, by eating a healthy diet and exercising to manage your weight—which is especially crucial as you age. According to Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, you should maintain physical activity for 30 minutes most days, including two days of strength training. Being active at least three days a week is best. Also, at least two days a week, incorporate muscle-strengthening activities, like lifting weights or doing sit-ups. Activities to improve balance, such as yoga, Tai chi, and balance postures, such as Tree Pose (standing on one foot) are helpful.

Musculoskeletal Changes: Muscles and Bones

Most of us lose significant muscle mass with aging, causing decreased strength and endurance. While some loss is related to normal aging, other factors contribute, including decreased activity, nutritional deficiency, and chronic disease. With age, we also experience changes in the structures lubricating and cushioning our joints, inhibiting our ability to recover from repetitive stress and causing our joints to feel stiffer. As joint tissues break down, we may develop arthritis.

Bone density increases from puberty until around 30, especially with regular exercise and a diet rich in vitamin D and calcium. As hormone levels change, bone loss gradually begins around age 35. On average, women lose approximately 0.5 to 1.5 percent per year in early and post-menopause. For those prone to losing bone loss rapidly, it can be as high as 3 to 5% per year. As your bones become thinner and more porous, your fracture risk increases, and you may get shorter. Disc compression, leg and foot changes, and decreased joint spaces contribute to height loss. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends women to screen for bone density beginning at age 65. At Canyon Ranch, we suggest women to get it before age 50 since women already have a 50 percent lifetime risk of developing a fragility fracture by the age of 65.

Underuse of muscles accelerates loss in muscles and bones, and the resultant weakness can lead to inactivity – the opposite of what your body needs to become strong. Conditioning can help, however. Include weight-bearing exercises, like walking and strength training, to maintain muscle function and strengthen your bones. Nutrition is also essential. Ensure your diet has adequate calcium found in dairy, almonds, and vegetables. For those allergic to dairy or nuts, there are plenty of dairy substitutes such as fortified oat or coconut milk, leafy greens, bok choy, beans, and lentils, as well as seeds such as chia and sesame. Vitamin D, found in tuna, sardines, egg yolks, and fortified foods, is necessary to get calcium into the bones. The skin also absorbs vitamin D through sunlight. Supplementation may be necessary, especially for people who live in the Northeast--and those with deeper melanin. Research shows that the latter absorbs less vitamin D from the sun, as the melanin in the skin thwarts the synthesis process. Likewise, People of Color tend to test at higher vitamin D deficiency rates, but have higher bone mineral density levels than Caucasians. The reason? Though they have lower vitamin D-binding protein levels, their bodies allow for similar amounts of the nutrient to be available for use by the body. For that reason, a vitamin D status test can provide clarity.

Your healthcare team can tell if you’d benefit from a supplement and at what dose, based on whether any symptoms are present, such as soft or weak bones and any aches in the lower back, pelvis, hips, legs, and ribs, or decreased muscle tone or difficulty walking, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How Women's Hearts Change with Age

Women who eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and don’t smoke, are much less likely to develop heart disease. In menopausal women, however, research shows that heart disease rates are 2 to 3 times higher than those of the same age who aren’t menopausal. An increase in heart attacks, according to research, typically occurs about ten years after menopause and is the leading cause of death in older women.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables and whole grains helps heart health. Estrogen appears to help artery walls stay flexible and may improve the balance of good and bad cholesterol. With aging, blood vessels become stiffer, causing the heart to work harder. This contributes to high blood pressure. Hypertension is a risk factor for heart disease or stroke because the excess pressure damages the lining of arteries, and plaque can build up, causing the arteries to narrow. Moderate activity, getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and stress management can help keep blood pressure down.

Breasts & Aging

A woman’s breasts change with life stages like puberty and pregnancy. As estrogen levels fall with menopause, the breasts become less full and elastic, resulting in “sagging.”

The risk of breast cancer also rises as women age, reports the National Cancer Institute. There is a 1 in 8 chance of women getting breast cancer: While a 30-year-old woman’s chance of developing breast cancer over the next ten years is just under 0.5%, a 60-year-old woman’s 10-year risk is just above 3.5%, or 1 in 28.

Genetics plays a role in breast cancer, but you can reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising regularly, minimizing alcohol consumption, and, if you take hormone replacement therapy, doing so for less than five years. Women 50 and older should get regular mammograms. If you’re younger, but have a positive family history, talk with your doctor about whether to begin regular mammogram screenings earlier. Regardless of age, all women are encouraged to conduct at-home breast examinations, at least once a month. When doing them, pay attention to any lumps, particularly if they are firm and irregular in shape, as well as a lump that was not there before. Look for changes in skin texture, such as dimpling, puckering, indentations, nipples that have turned inward, or changes in skin tone, especially around the areola.

Pelvic and Reproductive Health Changes

For many, the inability to hold your urine, as you age, is common. It occurs in approximately 10% of people over 65. Dry vaginal tissue in menopause may contribute to discomfort with sex and increase urinary tract infections. Moisturizers and lubricants can help with dryness and sexual discomfort. For chronic UTIs, due to low estrogen levels, some physicians may prescribe low-dose vaginal estrogen to restore hormone levels and good bacteria levels. Lifestyle changes such as drinking more water to flush harmful bacteria from the urinary tract may help. When chronic and frequent, physicians will likely prescribe antibiotics.

The changes that occur with menopause cause some women to feel less youthful, beautiful, and sexually attractive. Your sexual, reproductive, and urinary health depends on strong muscles and ligaments that support your pelvic floor. Childbirth, hysterectomies, and menopause can cause pelvic organ prolapse (pelvic organs slip out of place) and urinary incontinence.

Maintaining pelvic-floor strength through simple Kegel exercises can help: With an empty bladder, squeeze as if you're holding in your urine for a count of 5-10 seconds, then relax. Do 5-10 of these several times a day. Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, sodas, and foods with high acidity can also help. An acidic diet can irritate the bladder lining and exacerbate pelvic floor dysfunctions.

Caring for Your Skin As it Matures

After 50, the collagen fibers in the deeper layer of your skin may become coarser and less orderly in arrangement. This causes your thinning skin to be less elastic, making wrinkles more apparent. Your skin also makes less natural oil, making it feel drier and less supple. Pigment-producing melanocytes decrease, contributing to sun-related skin cancers.

Throughout life, eating a nutritious diet, getting restful sleep, drinking plenty of water, and not smoking are cornerstones of healthy, glowing skin — even more so as you age. You can try natural remedies for minimizing wrinkles, like exfoliating and applying a retinol night cream, if you’d like. But the most important thing you can do is protect yourself from the sun. You may also consider switching from hot showers, which dry the skin out, to warm showers. If you smoke, consider quitting since this can also cause wrinkles.

How Hair Changes with Age

As you age, your hair becomes thinner and grows more slowly. If you’re noticing more strands in your brush lately, don’t be alarmed: Almost everyone experiences some hair loss with time, especially after age 50. Graying hair often begins in the 30s, though some women experience it earlier--depending on their genes. Hair graying results from the loss of melanocytes from hair bulbs, just like in the skin. Also, hair follicles on the scalp decrease with age, as does the growth rate of hair in other parts of the body. Unfortunately, hair growth will often occur in places we don't want it, such as the face.

Whatever your age and the condition of your hair, you can improve its health by avoiding harsh chemicals and treating it gently.

Some final words of wisdom: As you encounter these and other changes, remember that the passage of time has myriad benefits. As you get older, you may relish things like not needing to think about birth control and the freedom that comes from having kids out of the house. You may notice a shift in your attitude, such as letting go of the need to please others. And you may find that this is a time to reconnect with your true passions and joys. Overall, older people are more conscientious, agreeable, and happier than their midlife counterparts.

Other tips for healthy aging: Avoid sugary and processed foods as these promote degenerative diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Limit alcohol, which can cause oxidative stress, contributing to aging. Get adequate sleep and manage your stress. Cultivate friendships and nurture family connections. Most importantly, stay active — older adults who keep active often function like younger ones.

This article was originally published on August 14, 2021, and has been updated as of the above date.

Headshot of Diane Downing, MD at Canyon Ranch Tucson

About the Expert

Headshot of Diane Downing, MD at Canyon Ranch Tucson

Dr. Diane Downing

MD, Physician

Dr. Downing is a board-certified family physician with professional interests that include women’s health, with an emphasis on helping navigate the transition through menopause, preventive medicine, cardiovascular health, and integrative medicine.

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