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Q&A About Getting Older

Why Do People Shrink?

Lee este articuloWhen we say older people shrink, we don’t mean they become tiny enough to fit in your pocket! We just mean that it’s common for older people to become a little shorter over time. It isn’t dramatic or sudden. It takes place over years and may add up to only an inch or so off of their adult height (maybe a little more, maybe less). This kind of shrinking can’t be reversed, although people can slow or stop this process. But why does shrinking happen at all?

Gravity (that force that keeps your feet on the ground) takes hold, and the disks, or cushions between the bones in the spine, get compressed over time. The back bones, called vertebrae (say: VUR-tuh-bray), end up pressing closer together, which makes a person lose a little height and become shorter.

Another reason why some older people shrink is because of osteoporosis (say: oss-tee-oh-puh-RO-sis). Osteoporosis occurs when bone is broken down and not enough new bone material is made. Over time, bone is said to be lost because it’s not being replaced. Bones become smaller and weaker and can easily break if someone with osteoporosis is injured.

Older people — especially women, who generally have smaller and lighter bones to begin with — are more likely to develop osteoporosis. As years go by, a person with osteoporosis can get small breaks in bones that are called compression fractures. These breaks cause collapse of the vertebrae and over time the person with osteoporosis can become hunched over or stooped.

Smoking and drinking alcohol can make this problem worse. Want to do something right now to build strong bones? Take these two steps. They’re smart ideas for kids and adults.

  1. Eat a well-balanced diet, especially with foods rich in the important bone-building mineral calcium (including milk, tofu, cheese, and yogurt; green leafy vegetables like broccoli and spinach; and drinks that are fortified with calcium like some kinds of orange juice)
  2. Exercise regularly. Doing so, over time, helps bones stay strong.

Did you know that every day you shrink a little, too? You aren’t as tall at the end of the day as you are at the beginning. That’s because as the day goes on, water in the disks of the spine gets compressed (squeezed) due to gravity, making you just a tiny bit shorter. Don’t worry, though. Once you get a good night’s rest, your body recovers, and the next morning, you’re standing tall again!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013