Effects of Aging

What Happens When We Age?

As we age, our bodies change. So does our need for, and response to, medications. In this installment, I’ll address the effects of aging on the body. Let’s start with the following questions.

  • What are these changes in the body?
  • How do these changes impact the need for medications?
  • How does aging affect the body’s response to medications?

Effects of Aging:


Can easily break down. Becomes drier. Can be itchy.

  • A moisturizing lotion or cream may be needed.


May be drier. May see less clearly.

  • Have eyes and vision checked each year.
  • If eyes are dry, use a lubricating eye drop.


Hearing can diminish.

  • Have periodic hearing evaluations.
  • Ask questions to check understanding.

Nose, Palate & Mouth

The ability to smell and to taste is diminished. Reduced saliva. Foods may taste different.

  • Altered taste can reduce one’s appetite and may contribute to weight loss.
  • Foods may taste “bland,†which can cause excessive use of salt or other seasonings with adverse health consequences.
  • Medications may also alter taste, especially antibiotics. Captopril (Capoten®) or Nifedipine (Procardia®), used to control blood pressure, may cause a sweet, salty or metallic taste. Anticholinergics like Donnatal® or Levsin®, used for gastrointestinal spasm or cramps, and Detrol® or Ditropan®, prescribed for an overactive bladder, can further reduce saliva and cause dry mouth.


Become more brittle. Increased risk of fracture. Height is reduced. There can be narrowing in joint space causing osteoarthritis.

  • Get checked for osteoporosis. Ask your doctor about a prescription medicine (e.g., Fosamax®, Actonel®) to reduce bone breakdown.
  • Ask your doctor and pharmacist if your daily intake of calcium and vitamin D are sufficient. US and Canadian quidelines normally recommend 1200 to 1500 mg of calcium and 800 to 1000 IU of vitamin D daily for those 50 and older.
  • Glucosamine combined with chondroitin (a natural product) may reduce mild to moderate pain associated with arthritis.
  • Walk daily.
  • Note: use caution if taking aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen (Advil®), naproxen (Aleve®) for arthritis pain. These can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, high blood pressure and decreased kidney function. Always take these medications with food in your stomach.


Have slower reaction impulses.

  • Stay active in mind and body.
  • Maintain social contacts.
  • Exercise. Tai chi maintains balance and can help prevent falls.


Reduce in size or mass and are less flexible. Muscle is often replaced by fat.

  • Continue exercising, especially weight bearing exercise such as walking.
  • Vitamin D has been associated with maintaining muscle function as well as bone maintenance.


May function more slowly. May be more forgetful.

  • Staying active in mind and body will help maintain cognitive function.
  • Try Sudoku, crossword puzzles or word search games.


Becomes less effective in its pumping ability

  • Exercise.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids may help in maintaining cardiovascular function. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish or an omega-3 dietary supplement.


Alveoli (the small breathing units of our lungs) may be fewer and more fibrous, causing a reduced ability to breathe.

  • Deep, relaxed breathing helps maintain lung capacity and improves blood oxygenation.
  • Exercise.


Blood flow to the kidneys slows. General aging often causes the build-up of plaque in blood vessels. The ability to eliminate fluid is reduced. Fluid retention may occur, resulting in edema (swelling). Medications may stay in the body longer and be more concentrated. These higher concentrations can lead to adverse drug reactions.

  • Have your doctor check your kidney function.
  • If taking Digoxin (Lanoxin®) drug levels should be checked regularly.
  • Certain diuretics (“water pillsâ€) called ACE inhibitors, such as lisinopril (Prinivil®, Zestril®), quinapril (Accupril®), and others can cause high levels of potassium in the blood (hyperkalemia).


Blood flow to the liver, like the kidneys, slows. This is also caused by general aging and the build-up of plaque in blood vessels. The liver’s capacity to metabolize drugs is reduced.


Slows. Medications stay in the body longer. May gain weight, especially in the stomach area.

  • Eat a balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables.
  • Reduce portion size when necessary.
  • Weigh yourself frequently.
  • Exercise.


Slows. May have difficulty passing stools. Less able to absorb nutrients in food.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Eat a diet with ample fiber.
  • Exercise.
  • If these measures are inadequate, a stool softener such as docusate sodium (Colace®) or a bulk forming laxative like psyllium fiber (Metamucil®) may be needed.


Slows. Cholesterol deposits in arteries may lead to reduced blood supply to tissues.

  • Reduce dietary fat intakeâ€"especially trans fats.
  • Eat a diet higher in fish and non-meat protein.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids may help.
  • Exercise.

Immune System

Is less able to defend the body against outside intruders. May be more prone to infection.

  • Get a flu shot annually.
  • Get the one-time pneumococcal vaccination.
  • Practice good handwashing techniques.
  • Avoid exposure to persons with respiratory illness.

All Organs and Cells

Have a reduced ability to repair or regenerate.

  • A multiple vitamin containing B vitamins, vitamin C, and folate may help in reducing oxidative processes and free radical formation which can reduce cell life.

These changes occur over time, so we may not always be aware of them. Each of us ages differently because of genetic make up, environmental factors and our own life experiences. Next month, please read my article on the side effects of drugs commonly used by seniors.

Stay active in both mind and body…take care!

Dr. Joe Woelfel