Ageing – what is normal and when to seek medical advice

Key points about ageing – common health problems

  • Although many young people fear getting old, for most people the latter part of their life can be a time of great enjoyment, activity and usefulness.
  • However certain body changes occur as we age and it's good to know what's to be expected and when to seek advice.
  • There is no such thing as a typical older person, as everyone ages differently. Some people in their 80s are still as mentally and physically active as people 50 years younger. 
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 As you get older your body changes, having inevitable impacts on different body systems and organs.  

According to the Mayo Clinic, here’s what’s happening in various parts of your body as you age, and what you can do to stay fit and healthy for longer. You can read about these changes in greater detail on the Mayo Clinic(external link)(external link) site.

Cardiovascular system 

Your blood vessels and arteries become harder, meaning your heart has to work harder to pump the blood through them. This can lead to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems. 

It will help if you: 

  • stay physically active every day 
  • eat a healthy diet 
  • don’t smoke 
  • manage your stress 
  • get enough sleep.  

Read more about cardiovascular health.  

Bones, joints and muscles 

Bones tend to shrink and lose their density, meaning they become less strong and can break more easily. Muscles lose strength and become less flexible impacting on your co-ordination, balance and stability. 

It will help if you: 

Read more about bone density.

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Digestive system 

Your large intestine changes as you age making it more likely you’ll get constipated. Being less active, not eating enough fibre and taking some medicines can make it worse.  

It will help if you: 

  • stay physically active every day
  • eat a healthy diet including fruit, vegetables and whole grains
  • drink plenty of water 
  • go to the toilet when you feel the urge to have a bowel movement (poo) and don’t hold on.  

Read more about healthy eating. 

Bladder and urinary tract 

Your bladder may not stretch as much as you get older, meaning you need to urinate (wee) more often. Weakening of your bladder muscles makes it harder to completely empty your bladder and you may lose some bladder control (urinary incontinence). For men, this can be made worse by having an enlarged prostate. 

It will help if you: 

  • empty your bladder regularly 
  • stay at a healthy weight and lose weight if you need to 
  • don’t smoke
  • do pelvic floor exercises
  • avoid things that can irritate your bladder, eg, caffeine, acidic foods, alcohol and fizzy drinks can make incontinence worse
  • avoid getting constipated (bowel blocked up). 

Read more about pelvic floor exercises for men and women. 

Memory and ability to think (cognitive abilities) 

As your brain gets older you may find your memory isn’t as good as it was (eg, you forget names or words) or you can’t think as clearly. 

It will help if you: 

  • stay physically active every day
  • stay mentally active  
  • stay socially active to improve your mental wellbeing 
  • eat a healthy diet and limit alcohol as it can add to confusion 
  • don’t smoke 
  • treat cardiovascular risk factors (eg, high blood pressurehigh cholesterol and diabetes) as they may increase loss of cognitive abilities. 

Read more about staying mentally active.(external link)(external link) 

Eyes and ears 

Your vision and hearing can deteriorate as you age. Read more about vision problems (cataractsmacular degeneration and glaucoma) and hearing loss.  

It will help if you: 

  • have regular check-ups 
  • wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to protect your eyes when you’re outside 
  • wear ear plugs when you are around loud noises. 


Your gums might recede (pull back from your teeth) as you get older, and some medicines can give you a dry mouth. This makes tooth decay more likely. 

It will help if you: 

  • brush your teeth twice a day and floss (or use an interdental cleaner) once a day 
  • have regular check-ups. 


Ageing skin gets thinner, becomes more fragile and bruises more easily. It may get drier as the natural oils decrease. Wrinkles, age spots and skin tags may appear.  

It will help if you: 

  • are gentle with your skin, bathe in warm rather than hot water, use mild soaps and moisturiser 
  • use sunscreen and cover up when outside 
  • don’t smoke. 


Your metabolism slows down as you get older, meaning that you don’t burn calories in the same way. If you continue to eat the same amount you can put on weight.  

It will help if you: 

  • stay physically active every day 
  • eat a healthy diet 
  • watch your portion sizes, or how much you eat. 

Read more about serving sizes for people of different ages.  


Your sexual needs and enjoyment may change as you get older. Sex may become uncomfortable for women due to vaginal dryness and men may find it more difficult to get or keep an erection.  

It will help if you: 

  • talk to your partner about what is happening for you and what you need 
  • remain physically active 
  • talk to your healthcare provider as there may be treatment that can help. 

Read more about sex and ageing. 

Although some functional changes can be explained by natural ageing processes, it's important to seek advice from a healthcare provider if you have any concerns that something else might be going on.  

If you notice changes in your patterns (sleep, bowel, appetite) or other symptoms (pain, shortness of breath) don’t assume it’s something you have to put up with just because you’re getting older. There may be a treatable reason, so talk to your healthcare provider and make a plan to improve your quality of life.  

Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider if you are experiencing any of these: 

Institute of healthy ageing – rehabilitation, ageing, and clinical studies(external link)(external link) Waikato District Health Board, NZ
Kaumātuatanga– the needs and wellbeing of older Māori(external link)(external link) Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust, NZ, 2018
Good fellow Unit Med Talk(external link)(external link) Dr Helen Fulcher, Goodfellow GP Advisor talks with University of Auckland Head of School of Population Health and general practitioner Professor Ngaire Kerse about maximising the health of our older patients.

See also Healthy ageing strategy for healthcare providers.

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

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