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Avoiding height loss as you age

Doing weight-bearing exercises will keep bones strong, and prevent age-related height loss caused by bone-thinning. NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports.

By Joyce Ho and Dr. Nancy Snyderman
NBC News 

It may be common knowledge that people tend to “shrink” as they age, but did you know that you can take simple, preventative steps to retain your height? 

The average height loss in a person’s lifetime is estimated to be around one to three inches, or about half an inch every decade after age 40. Why? The vertebral bones that make up our spinal column are separated by gel-like disks. As we age, these disks get flatter, so our spinal column shrinks. Our vertebra also loses bone density as we age, making them thinner. The end result is a stooped spine. And it's not just hazardous to your posture -- Harvard researchers recently found that height loss, a commonly seen by-product of age-related bone thinning, is a predictor of future risk of hip fractures. 

Tonight on “NBC Nightly News,” Dr. Nancy Snyderman offered tips on how to keep standing tall. Here are several ways to keep yourself healthy. 

  • Don’t drink excessively 
    Alcohol tampers with calcium levels in the body as well as hormone levels that affect bone density, damaging your bones. It also puts you at higher risk for falls and bone fractures.
  • Don’t smoke
    Smoking is a risk factor for bone loss, and the longer you smoke, the greater risk you have of bone fractures. Studies show that even exposure to secondhand smoke at an early age could contribute to bone loss. Prevent weak bones by quitting smoking.
  • Prevent falls
    Take preventative measures such as installing bars in the bathtub, buying shoes with tight gripping soles, and avoiding walking on slippery surfaces when it rains or snows.
  • Exercise daily to strengthen core muscles
    Exercise is always good for your health, but in this case, it is very important in keeping your bones and muscles strong for proper back and head support. Specific types of weight-bearing exercise where you work against gravity are good for preventing height loss such as walking, jogging or climbing stairs. Exercises such as swimming, running on the elliptical, and bicycling are not included in this class of physical activity.
  • Get a healthy dose of calcium and vitamin D
    Calcium and vitamin D are necessary for bone formation. The recommended daily intake for people before age 50 is 1,000  mg of calcium a day. For postmenopausal women and men over age 65, it's 1200 to 1500 mg of calcium a day and 400 to 800 international units of vitamin D everyday. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to get an adequate amount of these nutrients, either through your diet, supplements, or sun exposure. High calcium foods include tofu, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, and leafy green vegetables.