Gerodontology MOOC / 2. Article: Aging and General Health


As we age, changes happen to the body at a cellular level (in the cells and the tissues of the body). These changes ultimately affect the function of our organs. This is because, cells, followed by tissues, are the building blocks of organs.


Ageing affects a cells ability to divide and multiply. Alongside this, cells in an ageing person begin to accumulate lipids and may begin to function abnormally, or not function at all. Socio-demographic factors, like poverty, our lifestyle and nutrition are also chronic, and their effects accumulate over the life-course, meaning that diseases become more common as we age.

As we age, cancer becomes more common (this is known as prevalence). As cells age, they can become less able to rid themselves of genetic mutations, which occur naturally all through our life and is part of the normal day-to-day process of cell regulation. This can lead to these ‘rogue’ cells multiplying and affecting the organ’s ability to function or invade the body locally and ultimately, systematically (all across the body). It is now expected that although a third of the population in the United Kingdom will get one form of cancer or another, many will survive and live after a diagnosis of cancer. Amongst ‘older people’, 19% will have had a cancer diagnosis by 2030 compared to 13% in 2010.

"the number of people living with cancer is expected to grow by around one million every decade between 2010 and 2030."


Tissues begin to change with age. Many tissues will lose mass or their elasticity and begin to accumulate fatty substances. These changes affect the tissues ability to supply nutrients and remove waste products. This is particularly important in the cardio-vascular system, where the build-up of fatty deposits causes a narrowing of the blood vessels that supply our body and lead to the different forms of cardio-vascular disease, for example, angina and heart attacks and/or strokes.


Ultimately, the aging effects on cells and tissues affect the function of organs. As we age, our organs lose their reserve capacity. This makes it difficult for organs to respond when extra demand is placed on them. Increased demand may come from illness, medicines, life changes or physical activity.


Please scroll through the images and click on the tabs below for details on how ageing specifically affects each system of the body.

The Skin


The skin wrinkles and sags, while hairs grey and nail growth rate decreases.

Changes in the physical appearance of the skin are caused by a thinning of the outer layer (epidermis), a reduction in the number of pigment containing cells (melanocytes), a reduction in subcutaneous fat. Increases in collagen and changes to the elastin reduce the skins strength and elasticity. The skin bruises easily as the blood vessels of the middle part of the skin (dermis) become more fragile.


  • Fissuring: A painful irritation around skin folds
  • Changes in sensation: tingling, numbness or insensitivity of the skin
  • Senile seborrhoea: A dry scaling of the skin with greasy scaly lesions
  • Malignant disease: skin conditions that indicate the presence of underlying illnesses
The Cardiovascular System


The heart may increase in mass (hypertrophy) through a thickening of the heart wall, leading to a reduction in the amount of blood that can be pumped. This may be coupled with increased heart wall stiffness as its elastin and collagen compositions change. Similarly, the valves of the heart thicken and become stiffer. The heart also develops a slower heart beat as the pacemaker of the heart also deteriorates.

Receptors that monitor and maintain blood pressure become less sensitive with age, which can lead to episodes of low blood pressure (hypotension). The arteries become stiffer and less flexible, making the blood pressure higher (hypertension).

Blood also changes with age. The volume of water in the blood reduces, reducing the blood volume. Also, changes in red and white blood cells reduce their ability to respond to illness and fight off bacteria.


  • Arteriosclerosis: an increase in blood pressure associated with a decrease in aortal elasticity
  • Ischaemic heart disease: a loss of blood supply to the brain
  • Hypertension: high blood pressure
  • Postural hypotension: low blood pressure when standing or sitting up
  • Cardiac arrest: a stopping of the heart
  • Temporal arteritis: when the arterial walls become thickened and inflammatory and giant cells
  • Anaemia: too few red blood cells
  • Iron deficiency anaemia: anaemia caused by low iron levels common in elderly patients
  • Megaloblastic anaemia: abnormal red blood cells usually related to vitamin b12 and folic acid deficiency
  • Vitamin C deficiency: can lead to scurvy
  • Coagulation disorders: the blood is less able to clot
  • Senile purpura: large irregular bruises usually on the forearms, hands and face
The Respiratory System


Lung capacity falls with age. This is a result of a change of shape of the ribcage, weakening of the muscle that controls breathing (diaphragm) and a reduction in the ability of the muscles of the airway (thorax) to keep the airway fully open.

The mid-sized airways (bronchi) of the lungs may have a reduced ability to clear mucus, resulting in an increased risk of lower lung infections. This can be exacerbated by less efficient coughing.


  • Pneumonia: an infection of the air sacks of the lungs
  • Bronchitis: an inflammation of the large and medium sized airways of the lungs.
The Musculoskeletal System


Bones begin to lose mass (atrophy) and mineral content with age. This loss of bone mass is accelerated in women following menopause. The reduction in minerals causes bones to become more brittle.

The tissues between the bones of the spine (vertebrae), called disks, begin to lose fluid, leading to a shortening of the spine, and loss of height.

Joints become stiffer partially due to a reduction of fluid in the joint capsule, sometimes causing damage to the cartilage. A slowing cartilage regeneration can cause damage, particularly in the knees and hips.

Ageing causes a drop in muscle mass, caused by a loss of muscle tissue. The characteristics of muscle tissues can also change, as lost muscle tissue may be replaced with tough fibrous tissues.


  • Osteoporosis: a weakening of the bones
  • Osteoarthritis: painful and stiff joints
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: a progressive disease, causing inflammation of the joints
  • Acute infectious arthritis: a joint infection that develops over a short time frame
  • Muscle pain: stiffness and pain in the muscles and ligaments
The Urinary System


The kidneys experience a reduction on mass. Their ability to filter blood is impaired by a hardening of the supplying blood vessels, and a reduction in the number of filtering units (nephrons).

Bladder function is impaired with age. This is caused by a weakening of the bladder muscles and reduction in bladder volume as the bladder is unable to stretch and expand as easily.

Urethra blockages become more common in both men and women.


  • Urinary incontinence: the involuntary leakage of urine
  • Urinary tract infections: an infection of any part of the urinary system
  • Chronic kidney disease: when the kidneys do not work as efficiently as they should
The Endocrine System


Changes in the thyroid gland effect metabolism causing the rate of metabolism to decrease with age. An increase in hormone production by the parathyroid glands changes cone mineral composition leading to reductions in bone strength.

Glucose tolerance is impacted with age as the body becomes less sensitive the hormone (insulin) that helps transport glucose from the blood to the cells.

Hormones produced in the adrenal gland are change with age. The hormone (aldosterone) that helps control blood pressure decreases along with the stress response hormone (cortisol)

Men and women experience a reduction in their levels of sex hormones (testosterone and oestrogen respectively). In women this occurs after menopause.


  • Hypothyroidism: an underactive thyroid gland
  • Hyperthyroidism: an overactive thyroid gland
  • Diabetes: where the body doesn’t produce any insulin, or where body does not produce enough insulin or react to insulin (type 2)
  • Menopause: cessation of menstruation
The Nervous System


The brain begins to lose messaging cells (nerve cells) with age. These cells may also have a reduced ability to pass messages as the connections between the cells break down. These changes in brain are not the same for everyone.

The breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord can cause impairment of the senses. This ultimately effects reflexes and sensation.

Degeneration of the sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste are all attributed to ageing.


  • Trigeminal neuralgia: chronic pain of the face
  • Glossopharyngeal neuralgia: chronic pain at the back of the throat, tongue or ear.
  • Post-herpetic neuralgia: pain in the skin following shingles
  • Atypical facial pain: pain in centre of the face
  • Migrainous neuralgia: sharp pain around the eyes 1-3 times per day.
  • Facial weakness: paralysis affecting all or some of the face
  • Parkinson’s disease: Progressive damage to the brain over several years often affecting motor function
  • Dementia: an umbrella term for conditions that progressively affect the brains intellectual functions
  • Hearing loss: deterioration of the hearing with old age
  • Tinnitus: a ringing, whistling or buzzing in the ear
  • Vertigo: bouts of dizziness
  • Epistaxis: acute bleeding from the nostril
  • Dysphonia: difficulty speaking