Once you hit 50, you’ll quickly realize that changes to your body and mind aren’t coming — they’re here. For better or worse, here’s a look at the body shifts you can expect. Plus, a little dose of sugar to make it all more manageable.
Food will taste different
If you find yourself reaching for the Mrs. Dash more often, you can blame your aging nose. The cells that decipher aromas are decreasing without being replenished at the same rate.
Signals from the nose to the brain are also on the decline, as is your overall sense of smell, which means your brain has a harder time recognizing what’s coming in. (Certain medications can also alter this sense.) And to some degree, diminishing taste buds also play a role: Salty and sweet tastes are typically the first to stray, followed by bitter and sour. What to do? Don’t just sprinkle on the salt in your search for heightened flavor — too much sodium only ups your risk for heart disease. Instead, experiment with a variety of seasonings and use them to enhance your favorite dishes in new ways.
Your cravings will change
If you’re starting to cheat on the love of your life — chocolate, of course — with a bag of potato chips (or vice versa) you’re not alone.
Many adults over 50 report being caught off guard by food cravings they’d never experienced. Shifting hormones are the likely culprit, as taste preferences are known to fluctuate with our hormones. Dips in the brain chemical serotonin, for example, are known to up the desire for cookies, chips and other tempting treats. Yet researchers say they aren’t sure why your food of choice is suddenly different, other than that the foods you enjoy aren’t set in stone. What to do? Go with it but plan ahead by keeping healthier versions of what you now crave on hand. Roasted nuts can stand in for chips, for example.
Your sweat won't smell the same
Everyone has a unique scent, but the underlying chemicals that determine one’s body odor change with age.
The credit goes to changes in your sweat glands, hormones, and, in some cases, medications you might be taking. The good news? Your fear of developing that tell-tale “old people’s smell” can be brushed aside: Recent research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia found that the negative association with older people’s body odor is more about individual’s personal fear of old age. In the study, the body odor of people ages 75 to 95, in fact, didn’t really turn off study participants. Middle-aged women (ages 45 to 55) were determined to have the most pleasing scent. While, bad news fellas, the scent of middle-aged men earned the lowest rating What to do? Stay on top of your hygiene and don’t go overboard on onions or garlic (food odors travel through the bloodstream and enter sweat glands).
Getting out of bed in the morning will be more difficult
A lifetime of wear and tear really starts to take over from 50 onward. That’s because your muscles, ligaments and tendons are simply not as strong as they were 10 or 20 years ago.
But while you can expect some stiffness when you get out of bed or go to stand after, say, a long car ride, if you’re stiff to the point of pain, a visit with your doctor is in order. It’s also not considered normal aging if you have trouble turning your neck to check a blind spot, for example, or if you have pain moving from sitting to standing. Those are signs that your joints may be aging prematurely. What to do? Begin and end your day with a few simple stretches or go a step further and sign up for a beginner’s yoga or tai chi class. These gentle exercises will help improve your flexibility and strength.
Your legs won't keep up with your will (or need) for speed
When people told you that life would slow down as you got older, perhaps what they really meant to warn you about was the fact that you’ll literally become a slowpoke.
Here, it’s not your legs that are the problem, it’s the signals your brain is sending to your muscles. This change actually began at around age 40, when the brain cells that shoot motor-control commands to muscles started to slide. What to do? Continue to exercise your body and be open to trying new workouts (the variety will challenge your brain and muscles in a good way), but also toss in some mental training. In 2008, neurologists at UCLA found that giving brains their own workout could prompt repair cells to kick into gear. Ways to stay mentally active include doing crossword puzzles, challenging yourself to memorize lists or numbers, repeating groups of words in order, taking music or language lessons, or playing computer brain games.
Coming back from an injury will take longer
Muscle mass naturally declines and becomes more pronounced at around age 45. That’s because the protein rebuilding and repair mechanisms are slowing down.
Also, by the time you turn 50, your bone density has dropped about 10 percent. The result is both a decrease in physical strength and a longer recovery time if you’ve been hurt. Studies have found that regular exercisers ages 45 and up bounce back from overuse injuries 15 to 18 percent slower than a similarly injured 30-year-old. What to do? You can counter the impact of aging by building strength with resistance training two to three times each week, walking daily and working on your core muscles a few times each week. And be sure to meet your daily calcium needs to safeguard your bones.
Opening that jar or stuck window will take more oomph
With your muscle mass on a natural downward slope (it’s called sarcopenia), it follows that simple everyday activities might suddenly stop you in your tracks.
But hold on — recent studies show promising signs that these muscle changes may, in fact, be stoppable. Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh who looked at competitive athletes (men and women) ages 40 to 70-plus determined that staying active throughout life leads to only minor drop-offs in muscle strength. Researchers aren’t sure if similar benefits will result by taking up exercise in mid-life, or if the type of exercise matters, but say it’s reasonable to assume so. What to do? Start or keep on exercising! Even if you don’t stop muscle loss, the only way to slow it down is through exercise and eating right.
You'll need to shorten your pants length
Shrinking is a real thing for middle-agers, women especially.
Beginning at around age 40, the spinal column gets shorter due to the loss of bone density (between 5 and 20 percent) and the thinning out of the disks between each vertebra, according to doctors at Harvard Medical School. Toss perimenopause (when estrogen levels nosedive) and menopause (when new bone can’t be rebuilt as fast as it’s breaking down) into the picture and women over the age of 50 are now at the greatest risk for developing osteoporosis. What to do? Lift weights, ramp up your walking, do some type of daily activity that puts stress on your bones. (Swimming and cycling won’t cut it here.) When your bones get a little bit of a pounding, your brain will signal for new bone cells to be added. In addition, eat more calcium-rich foods (like yogurt, broccoli, soy, salmon and almonds) and take a daily vitamin D supplement to help your body absorb the calcium.
Mysterious aches will appear — and annoy
Nagging knees, achy feet, throbbing back, inflamed tendons — people in their 50s seem to collect body aches like badges.
This is the decade when you start paying a physical price for poor posture, improper form when doing tasks that involve lifting or pushing, or shunning fitness. What’s more, if you’re dealing with multiple health issues — such as high blood pressure and diabetes — it can be harder for your doctor to get at the root of your pain. What to do? Commit to learning the right way to sit, stand and use your body as you go about your daily activities. If you’re already in pain, work with your doctor to find a treatment program that fits your lifestyle. Acupuncture, for example, has proven an effective relief for many types of chronic pain.
When you've got to go, you've really got to go
About one in five adults over 40 struggle with an overactive bladder (OAB). The muscles that contract to empty the bladder have become unstable, leading to contractions before the bladder is completely full.
Plus, with age, our kidneys begin to process more urine at night. What to do? If you’re urinating more than eight times a day, or two or more times a night, try reducing your fluid intake by about 25 percent (check with your doctor first to prevent dehydration). Putting yourself on a bathroom schedule may also help. The idea is to urinate every two to four hours, rather than whenever you feel a slight urge.
Or, you won't be able to do your business when you need to
Constipation becomes another common concern for those over 50, and the reasons are many: muscle movement in the colon gets slower and some of the body mechanics involved are changing; many medications commonly prescribed to this age group can lead to constipation, as can certain health conditions (such as diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome); not drinking enough water; and a sedentary lifestyle.
What to do? Include more high-fiber foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) in your meals and make sure to drink plenty of water. Regular exercise also plays a key prevention role.
You'll bruise more easily
Even the smallest bump against a wall will now leave its mark. That’s because your skin is thinner and no longer provides the same amount of protection from life’s little knocks.
Plus the blood vessels of the dermis are more fragile. What to do? Unless you’re willing to don protective gear, simply keep your head up and be on the lookout for open drawers and loose rugs.
Your nails and skin will start to look like a special effects team is playing a joke on you
Your body produces fewer natural oils as you get older. Great news for those who’ve struggled with adult acne. Not so great news for those who now have to battle Velcro-like dry hands; brittle and/or thick nails; and leathery skin.
What to do? Continue to slather on the sunblock whenever you head outside, and make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids. If you’re truly not comfortable in your new skin, a dermatologist can walk you through some of the many treatment options that can make a visible difference.
Cavities will start to be a concern again
Like your hair and your skin, your tooth enamel (the protective layer) is thinning out and breaking down, exposing your teeth to more bacteria.
What to do? Don’t put off your twice-yearly dental cleanings and ask your dentist if you’re a good candidate for dental sealants, which are protective coatings that guard against decay.
Waistline control becomes a 24/7 job
Natural shifts in your body’s metabolism plus hormonal changes make weight gain a real possibility for men and women, even if they’re following a healthy lifestyle. It’s also tougher to lose weight and keep it off once you’ve hit your 50s.
What to do? Take control of your eating habits and jumpstart an exercise routine. Use the MyPlate.gov recommendations for improving your food choices (fruits and vegetables should take up half your plate, grains and lean protein about a quarter each, plus low-fat dairy on the side). And aim to take at least 10,000 steps each day — use a pedometer to tally your movement.
Your brain won't work as quickly
It’s true, brain function in middle age isn’t the same as it was in our younger adult days. We are more forgetful and don’t recall facts, words and details as quickly as we once did.
But recent research shows the news isn’t all bad. In fact, scientists have found that the middle-aged brain can rewire itself for the better. For example, studies show that spatial and abstract reasoning improve in middle age, as do certain verbal and math skills. Scientists believe the brains of older adults are drawing from decades of experience to improve many mental functions. What to do? Find some mentally stimulating activities to keep your mind sharp. Some ideas: Vary your commute, take a class at the community college, teach yourself to write with your opposite hand. Ditch your multitasking ways, since juggling too many things at once makes it harder for your mind to focus. And aim for a little more organization in your daily to-dos.
Your sex life will be different
And "different" here isn’t code for "worse." In fact, many men and women in their 50s report enjoying sex more than they ever did as a wild, young thing. Yes, women may need to deal with vaginal dryness and men may discover their erections are less firm and take longer to rise.
But experts say this physical need to spend more time becoming fully aroused can bring you and your partner more in sync. Plus, menopause frees women from bothersome PMS and menstrual symptoms, not to mention the fear of unplanned pregnancy. What to do? Stock up on topical estrogen preparations and water-based lubricants to make sex more comfortable. And embrace this new phase of discovery to find what brings you and your mate the most pleasure.