Two Kinds of Aging

The folks who have been studying aging have identified two kinds of aging: primary and secondary. Your parents don't get to pick which one. They're going to experience both.

Primary Aging

Primary aging is genetic. It's that part of aging where your parents are essentially along for the ride. It's the preprogrammed coding that their bodies follow. Some people have great genes and live a long time with a full head of hair.

No matter how great their genes, your parents will experience a decline in something known as trophic factors. Basically, these are the hormonal substances our bodies produce like estrogen, testosterone, and human growth factors. When Mom or Dad's body starts producing less of these, you start to see the classic signs of aging: less smooth skin, less hair, less hair color, and even less height. There's less bone mass and lost muscle fiber. And Mom or Dad's senses also become less effective. Hearing, vision, touch, smell, and even taste begin to decline, continuing on a downward descent as your parents age. Perhaps, one of the most damaging factors in primary aging is the immune system's inability to keep pace with past performance levels. It, too, becomes less effective leaving Mom and Dad susceptible to the flu, pneumonia, and any other infections that come along.

Secondary Aging

Silver Lining

Research studies show that our ability to understand, reflect, and interpret information actually increases with age. That's why cultures throughout history have revered their elders for their wisdom—a word we seldom associate with the young. In fact, the U.S. Senate derives its name from the Latin word senatus, meaning “elder,” the assumption being that to qualify for the senate, you need the kind of judgment that only old age brings.

Here's where your parents get to take some control over their aging. A lifestyle of moderate exercise, no smoking, a healthy diet, and staying active can delay the effects of secondary aging caused by the systems of the body simply slowing down. The circulatory system becomes less efficient and the heart gets sluggish. The vessels that carry the blood to and from the heart become clogged and constricted. Lungs lose nearly half of their capacity by the time your parent turns 80 and the muscular-skeletal system loses its strength, giving way to stiff joints and weak muscles. This slowing down of the body's systems also affects digestion because it takes longer for food to pass through Dad's system. He will also absorb food and fluids at an erratic rate, which for most people is slower. Overall, Dad's body will work just fine at this slower pace. Pushing his body beyond its capacity, however, will get him in trouble.

Since we're on this “slow but sure” theme, let's not leave out the brain. The speed of processing information by the brain is diminished with age; however, the quality of thinking—the ability to learn and remain intelligent—does not naturally decrease with age.

More on: Aging Parents


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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