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Why do people get older?

a smiling group of five older adults

Younger people have lots of questions about older people, like: Why do we age? Why do people get gray or white hair? Why do older people have wrinkles? Why do older people have veins that stick up? Why are older people more tired? Why do some people get shorter as they get older? Dr. Suvi Neukam, a geriatrician at Oregon Health and Sciences University, answers kids’ questions about aging in this episode.

Download our learning guide: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

  • We get old because our DNA gets older. The longer we live the more our DNA is exposed to things like pollution, chemicals, cigarettes and too much sun. Those things can make your DNA not work as well. Doctors think just being alive for longer can make DNA not work as well as it used to, and that leads to some of the changes we associate with getting older.
  • Everyone has telomeres in their DNA. A telomere is the end part of the DNA. Over time our telomeres get shorter. Though there’s significant variety in how long people’s telomeres are to begin with, pollution, stress and inflammation can make your telomeres shorten over time. Shortened telomeres make you appear older. 
  • Gray Hair: Our hair color comes from the melanin that our body produces. As some people get older their body will stop producing as much melanin in their hair follicles, and their hair will lose color. Many people will start to grow gray hair in their 40s - but some go gray or white much earlier, and others will hold onto their hair color much longer (or for as long as they live). What will happen with your hair depends on your DNA. 
  • Wrinkles: People get wrinkles as they grow older because their body is no longer producing as much collagen and elastin - both of which are important to keeping skin healthy and squishy. That, along with less hydration, makes our skin more likely to be wrinkly, loose and saggy. To keep your skin healthy, it’s important to wear sunscreen and stay hydrated.
  • Shrinking: People can get shorter when they get older because of changes to their bones. The vertebrae in our spine are important to our height. Our vertebrae are stacked up our back like a tower of building blocks. In between each of those vertebrae are squishy discs. As we get older, bones can get compressed, move out of place, or even break. And our discs can get smaller and drier. That can make you a little bit shorter. To keep our bones healthy, it’s important to eat foods with calcium and vitamin D and to get exercise to keep bones strong.
  • Older adults have other changes to their body that aren’t related to appearance. Sometimes people have changes in balance, and falling is dangerous because our bones don’t heal as well as we age. And adults sometimes have changes in their brains that make it harder to come up with a word or a memory.
  • But getting older is also full of a lot of wonderful things–ask the older people in your life what they enjoy about aging!
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
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