Groan: What Happens as We Age?
By Randy R. Weigel, Former Director of Wyoming AgrAbility
Older ranchers and farmers must deal with the effects of aging just like everyone else. What are “normal” changes that can increase risk for ranchers and farmers as they age? Deborah Reed, professor of nursing at the University of Kentucky, specializes in agricultural health and safety. She lists the following as normal changes as we age.
In our 30s, we begin to see decreased respiratory capacity. Our 40s are marked by presbyopia. In our 50s we see compromised joints, followed by skin changes in our 60s, decreased distal sensation in our 70s and decreased temperature tolerance in our 80s.
‘Bag of wind’ syndrome
Here’s what happens. In your mid-20s, you reach a maximum respiratory capacity. You can go longer, talk faster, jump higher and everything else in your 20s because your lungs are at their peak.
After that it’s downhill. If you are a smoker, it goes downhill twice as fast.
Starting at about the age of 30, your lung capacity begins to decrease. By the time you are 50 your lung capacity may be half of what it was in your youth.
Decreased lung capacity means respiratory function is impaired and less oxygen is getting into your cells. This explains why shortness of breath, decreased endurance and susceptibility to respiratory illness commonly increases with age.
‘Long arm’ syndrome
Presbyopia, which is a nice word for what I call “long arm” syndrome happens in your 40s.
The lens of the eye begins to yellow and flatten. If you see people trying to read things like restaurant menus and they are holding it at arm’s length, that is presbyopia. In your 40s that’s a natural occurrence.
‘Snap, crackle and pop’ syndrome
By the time you’re in your 50s, you have the “snap, crackle and pop” syndrome.
Your joints begin to lose the lubricant they have between the bones, and the collagen begins to compress. It can lead to bone on bone contact. When you get out of bed you experience pain and you have to stretch.
Noises that you are making can change from pleasant sounds in your youth to painful sounds as you try to get out of bed.
‘Connect the dots’ syndrome
By the time you are in your 60s, you can have a game to play with your grandchildren – connect the dots, because your skin begins to develop dots on it that you didn’t have before because of long-term exposure to the sun.
Ranchers’ s and farmers’ skin changes can be even worse. That is normal.
You also begin to lose the fatty layer underneath the skin, so you can pinch up the skin at times.
‘Lobster claw’ syndrome
By the time you’re in your 70s, when you reach for things, you may not feel them. That’s because the nerve endings at the ends of your fingers and toes begin to decrease, resulting in decreased distal sensation.
If you are diabetic it happens at a younger age. Diabetes takes a toll on fingers and toes.
Think about what this might mean to you. If you try to pick up a wrench, nut or bolt to do repair work and you can’t feel them like you used to, it becomes more difficult to do the work.
By the time you are in your 80s, you develop the grandma syndrome. You need a shawl even when it’s 90 degrees. You don’t have good temperature tolerance. Your window of being comfortable is between 75 and 80 degrees. Anything different than that and you feel cold.
Hyper- and hypothermia are very real problems in your 80s and above.
These are normal changes as we age. There is no magic formula despite what you see on TV. This will happen to you. You can be prepared for what is coming, or if you are already there, now you can explain it.
The other thing that happens as age advances is you have prolonged recovery times. What used to take you two weeks to get over may take a month to get over now. Respiratory infections will take longer. Broken bones take longer to heal. Your resistance goes down as you begin to age.
Older ranchers and farmers are also at risk because their reflexes begin to slow. You can’t move as fast because it hurts, and your joints are stiff. There is also physical degeneration of the muscles. Even if you are out all day working, your muscles atrophy as you age.
In her study Safety Strategies for Older Adult Farmers, Reed was interested in how older ranchers and farmers changed their work as they aged to make it easier. What were some adaptations older ranchers and farmers made?
They increased the use of four-wheelers and ATVs. They began to think and plan the day so they could conserve energy.
They paced themselves and took more frequent rest breaks, saying, “When I get tired, I quit.” They hired younger people to help do the more physically demanding tasks.
They did more maintenance on their equipment so they wouldn’t have to do repair work when tired or under pressure to reduce the chance of an accident.
They began taking short vacations so they wouldn’t get fatigued. Fatigue is the leading cause of injury in older ranchers and farmers. And, get this – they even began to take naps. Who would think of a rancher taking a nap?
But as one rancher mentioned, “I found I had to take a nap because I literally could not go anymore. I just began to build naptime into my workday. And, now I go out to feed at 7. I used to go at 5.”
Randy R. Weigel is professor emeritus and Extension specialist in the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He can be reached at 307-766-4186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.