ASK DR. H: Over the years, gravity can impact height

Q: I am a 78-year-old man who’s about an inch and a half shorter than he used to be. Why am I shrinking? — R.J., Macon

A: We’re all getting shorter with age. Blame gravity. There are 23 discs between the vertebrae that make up our spine. Over time and over the years, these shock-absorber discs dry out a bit and get compressed from all the weight of gravity they bear. That causes them to shrink a bit.

Let’s say that you lose 1 to 2 millimeters of height from each disc. That may seem pretty small, but if every disc loses 1 to 2 millimeters of height, that’s between 23 and 46 millimeters of height. There are 25.4 millimeters to an inch, so it’s easy to shrink an inch or so with age. Even our daily height varies depending upon the time of day. At the end of day, we’re a little bit shorter, thanks to the effect of gravity; by morning, we’ve gained that height back. So if you want to feel taller, measure your height first thing in the morning.

But there’s another part to all this: bone loss from osteoporosis. If there’s significant bone loss and decreased bone density, the vertebrae themselves may compress or even fracture. That’s why screening for osteoporosis in women at menopause (or earlier if on chronic steroids) and any men that might be at risk is so important. While we’ve got drugs to slow the rate of bone loss (estrogen replacement therapy, calcium) and drugs to reverse osteoporosis (Evista, Fosamax, Actonel and Boniva), we can’t restore height to your spine. The only exception is an acute compression fracture, for which an orthopedic surgeon can perform a procedure called “kyphoplasty” to restore height and mend the fracture.

But gravity can be a good thing, too. It stimulates bone activity and helps combat osteoporosis. Astronauts, nearly weightless in space, suffer accelerated loss of bone. The benefit of weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jogging, tennis or dance is clear.

Dr. Mitchell Hecht is a physician specializing in internal medicine. Send questions to him at “Ask
Dr. H,” P.O. Box 767787, Roswell, GA 30076. Personal replies are not possible.

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