Getting Shorter With Age

So, “everyone” gets shorter with age and this phenomenon is usually chalked up to compression over time. It is said that your height decreases because either the discs between your vertebrae have flattened out or, your bone density decreases with age, creating weak bones that can no longer stay upright so they curl forward. This seems to be the general understanding of why we get shorter as we get older. However, things are not always as they appear.

What I’m about to explain here is how someone can measure as shorter without any change in their mass — only in how their mass is oriented. I’ve failed, many times, to get this point across to large crowds of clinicians and they always end up looking at me like I’m insane. How can someone possibly be shorter if some body part hasn’t changed in length?

Let me show you.

#1: Here is a kindergarten-style model, complete with brads. (I said kindergarten-style, ok?) I’ve taped the foot down, drawn a posterior reference line for head positioning, and then measured my model’s height (Ht. 1).


#2: I’ve add some pelvis thrust and did a remeasure (Ht. 2). (If you click on the picture it looks like the head is below the line, but that’s because the top of the head is curling up toward the camera. Apologies, I did this while making–and burning–my kid’s breakfast sausage.)


#3 I added a little knee flexion and remeasured the height (Ht.3)


#4: Then some post-tilt to the pelvis (Ht.4)…


Because this is totally sloppy, here’s an up-close pic of the difference between the first and fourth measure.

IMG_4021Height loss, folks, without any change in the mass of the model.

A detail like this–that an objective measure like height can be totally subjective depending on how a person stands over their history of measurement— is critical when reading research (how, specifically, was height measured, for example) and when trying to figure out how a disease works.

Many of you know my work on pelvic issues, but I’m really in love with bone and all of its processes — including how it responds to load. There is a lot going on in bone disease research but the foundational tenets always seem to stem from an oversimplified model of forces–that the body is essentially a box where one end can be squished toward the other instead of many parts connected by many hinges that can deform in many directions. Simple models are great for kindergarten-style blog posts (!!!) but they shouldn’t be the basis for academic theory–especially when a more complex model is so simple.

What I’ve presented here isn’t rocket science or genius (the construction paper should have given that away); It’s geometry. But if you aren’t thinking about cellular health in terms of geometry, you’ll miss the more biologically plausible explanation of bone loss, crumbling vertebrae, compressed and bulging discs. Maybe even worse, you’ll be tempted to explain disease in terms of unavoidable gravity, making it seem like something that has nothing to do with your behavior beyond being on the planet. How debilitating is that message?

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39 thoughts on “Getting Shorter With Age

  1. Well, I TOTALLY got your point this time – and I am a clinician. 🙂 Thanks for the great explanation, Katy! Love it.

  2. This is awesome. I for one love to hear that *I* have more control. Sadly, I know some people like to avoid accountability and blame everything outside their locus of control.

  3. Most excellent.

    We had an octogenarian relative who actually “GREW” in his older years. Well, I mean he “measured taller” … you know, after his double knee replacement and all.

    Turns out, being knock-kneed can make you “shorter” than you actually are.

    1. That’s because it’s not really knock-kneed (as in a purely inward-along-the-sagittal-plane motion) but one of rotation with a net-lowering change. SCHMEAR!!

  4. It must be that I am a layman, lacking in a scientific background that makes it so easy to see the merits of your “argument” 🙂 First it was genetics and now it’s gravity. Pretty soon, all we will have left to “blame” for our ailments is ourselves. Egads! Great post.

  5. Cool cool cool!! I’ve been “shrinking” (my theory is it’s the scoliosis) and have been told for years that it’s unavoidable and there’s nothing I can do about it. Now to figure out what to do to correct it. . .

    Thanks, Katy – you’re the most positive force on the internet. No kidding!

  6. This illustrates your point beautifully.

    I love your work, Katy!

    It all just makes so much sense.

    Thank you 😀

  7. Phew!! I am five feet tall and I am so happy to hear this!! I tell people I am 5 foot 3 but hamstrings are just a bit short!! Thanks for all you do!! You inspire me!!

  8. Great illustrations Katy! I had started “shrinking” and was down about an inch after my first pregnancy, then I started following your DVDs and blog and working on my alignment and was back to full height by my second pregnancy.

    BTW the second pregnancy was far more comfortable than the first, as well (well until I came down with a severe case of shingles anyway). Thank you!!!

  9. Really great to see it in ” pictures”. I was talking to a client yesterday about this very thing. Now i have a masterpiece to show her! Thanks, Katy.

  10. I think the pictures are great! But I’m not so sure about the statement that low bone density makes your bones curl forward! Curly bones is quite a mental image! I’d be inclined to describe it as the weakness causes fractures and collapses of the vertebrae that can make our whole upper back curl forward!

  11. This makes sense. My kids will measure differently given the way they are standing.
    But then I was thinking of peeps who float about in space- how astronauts come back and are often inches taller bc they haven’t been pulled by gravity lo these many months.
    What is happening there?
    Maybe it’s easier for them? And from a recent blogpost I’ll steal something you said to answer the question- our bodies are always looking for the easiest way to do something- and when in space, away from gravity, the astonauts’ bodies have it easy already?

    1. As I understand it, astronauts don’t come back taller–they measure taller while still in space. The discs, not under gravity, have greater length. Kind of like if you stand on a balloon it expands laterally, but in the absence of standing on it, there’s greater height. Again, no different in mass, just difference in load. I didn’t read this all, but maybe it points to further information?

  12. Yes it’s true postural alignment can make a big difference in someone’s height and changes in height over time. This is both in direct changes to joint position as you (Katy) demonstrated above but also how those changes in joint position and thus load deform tissues. This can be in knee meniscus wearing away, to degenerative disc disease, to osteoporosis causing vertebral fractures, etc. I have seen clients gain 6 inches in 1 hour from just doing Postural Alignment Therapy e-cises and clients gain 3/4 of an inch over time from building spinal bone density. Either way it’s great to see!

  13. I am 53 years old and I measure taller now than I ever have, thanks to improved alignment–thank you Katy (and other body nerds) for sharing your wisdom. At 5’10”, the mark on the wall isn’t what matters to me, the vastly improved ease in my body does though.

  14. Sorry this is not a comment on this post but a question about the ebook of Move Your DNA which I ordered and paid for. I can not find a way to link to the download of the ebook. Please send me a link. I do not have Facebook so this is my only way to contact you. Thanks

  15. Your demonstration via the kindergarten style model clearly makes your point. However, are you also saying that it is not true that one can lose height from vertebral disk compression for example. I have always heard that you can measure shorter at night than first thing in the morning due to the effects of standing all day causing the disks between the vertebrae to compress under pressure. Are you saying that does not happen?

    1. No, I’m not saying that discs don’t compress, but that the compressive effect is consistent throughout one’s life–meaning that’s happening every day. I’m trying to explain here other ways a net loss could be explained over an adult-lifetime! Thanks for the comment…

  16. After my knee replacements I measured 1/4″ taller making me glad I had both done at the same time. A friend did hers separately and had problems caused by misalignment.

    At my annual this year I measured 1/2″ shorter than last year but I am not as worried about that after having read this. Thanks for reassuring me that I may not be crumbling to pieces.

  17. This explains how I “grew” an inch taller after a few years of practicing yoga–and better posture. thanks for your clever explanation.

  18. For picture #2 I *think* you meant to say you added “some rib thrust”, not pelvic thrust…(in case any new readers get confused)…

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