It is a readily observable fact that healing slows as you age. Children who encounter cuts or scrapes will recover much faster and with less signs of injury than older people. The latest studies suggest that although the same bodily healing processes occur in older people as in children, there may be some impact of aging and the healing process.
Age impacts many physiological functions including healing. Slower healing also influences many chronic pain conditions because inflammation may linger, prolonging many pain symptoms. Pain itself is a detrimental factor for healing and may slow the process in multiple ways.
What Happens as You Age?
There are an estimated 48 million Americans aged 65 or older currently. This is the fastest growing age group in the U.S. with projections suggesting that there could be 98 million seniors in the U.S. by 2060. For most of these seniors, one of the common features of entering old age is declining health. This is due to a greater susceptibility for injury and illness as well as a slower healing rate.
There are a variety of factors that impact your ability to heal as you age, including:
- Higher blood pressure—your blood pressure naturally rises as you age because your heart rate slows slightly and your arteries increase in stiffness. This means that your blood circulation may slow somewhat, lowering the amount of oxygen and nutrients distributed throughout your body. Without a vigorous circulation, your healing is impaired.
- Changing sleep patterns—you may have more sleep problems in your senior years including difficulty falling asleep, more sleep disturbances, and less time in deep sleep. Without proper rest, your body’s ability to heal is greatly diminished.
- Emotional problems—almost one in five seniors has a mental health problem. Some of the most common include depression and anxiety. Studies show that poor mental health can lead to more wound infections, lengthen hospital stays, and amplify pain symptoms.
- Loss of bone and muscle mass—as you age, you naturally lose mass from bones and muscle. Weakened bone and muscles pose a serious risk of injury which could lead to chronic pain. You can counteract some of these effects by eating calcium-rich foods and adopting a strength training exercise routine.
- Depressed immune system—some aspects of your immune system appear to deteriorate as you age. This includes the components that coordinate some healing mechanisms like white blood cells. Aging also seems to interfere with stem cell application and differentiation.
How Aging Impedes Healing
It remains unclear how getting older actually interferes with the healing process, but new research suggests that the immune system plays a key role in this slowdown. One study published in the journal Cell found that skin healing is a cooperative process involving epidermal cells as well as immune cells. In older people, there is less communication with immune cells, which retards the healing process.
The lack of physical activity among many older people also influences the healing process. A more sedentary lifestyle poses many health risks like back pain or obesity which may detriment the healing mechanism. Research shows that obesity does slow healing significantly because fatty tissue impairs blood flow to tissue. Fat also suppresses the production of certain cytokines that protect against inflammation. Lower oxygen flow and higher inflammation also make older people more susceptible to infection.
Many older people also suffer nutritional deficiencies which also interfere with healing. One of the most widespread problems in American society is that although many people eat high calorie foods, those foods come with remarkably few proteins, vitamins and minerals needed to maintain optimal healing. Others may maintain a proper diet but eat less than enough due to chronic pain, infirmity or mental impairment. Finally, older people are also more likely to develop digestive issues that reduce nutrient absorption; vitamin D and calcium absorption drops dramatically as you age, especially among women.
Strengthening Your Healing Ability
If you want to recover from injury, tissue damage or major surgery, you, of course, want to boost your ability to heal. There are many strategies you can employ, but here are some of the most effective suggestions:
- Exercise regularly—your body was designed to move, so engage in regular exercise to keep it operating at peak efficiency. You should discuss any new fitness regimen with your doctor beforehand, but you should engage in a routine that includes strength training as well as mild aerobic activity. Many people respond positively to yoga which emphasizes flexibility and functionality.
- Proper diet—the other major component of healthy living is eating a diet rich in vitamins, minerals and protein. Avoid sugary or fatty foods that offer only empty calories; in fact, you probably need fewer calories than you think since you lose mass as you age. Instead, focus on key nutrients like vitamin D and calcium which are harder to obtain; dairy products are rich in vitamin D and calcium. Eat nutritious foods rather than take supplements. There is mounting evidence that supplements only provide minimal benefits.
- Engage socially—it may be difficult but try to stay socially active. A vibrant social life has many health benefits including less likelihood of depression, improved cognitive function and better immune function. Socializing has also been linked with a more active lifestyle and better diet.
- Meditation—there is a proven relationship between a positive mentality and better health. Maintaining a stress-free lifestyle will not only help you maintain an upbeat mentality but it shields from the many harmful effects of anxiety which impedes healing. One of the most successful ways of eliminating stress is to engage in meditation which promotes mental peace. Mind-body programs like yoga or Tai Chi also help reduce stress and boost healing.
- Sleep well—it may be more difficult to get a good night’s rest as you get older, but sleep is essential for good health. You may find it harder to fall asleep or remain asleep all through the night. It is important to maintain a regular bedtime routine. Consult your doctor if you need sleep aids.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees. The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship. Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.