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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

HEALTH ANSWERS

How can I keep from getting bad posture?

Q. How can I keep from getting bad posture as I age?

A. Some people develop a pronounced curve in their upper spine as they age, a condition sometimes known colloquially as “dowager’s hump’’ but clinically as hyperkyphosis. The condition, which affects men as well as women and usually progresses with age, is not just a cosmetic problem. It’s associated with a greater risk of falls, a decline in movement and daily functions, depression, and even a higher risk of death. Lisa Samelson, a scientist at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Institute for Aging Research, says that hyperkyphosis can make it harder to breathe if lungs get compressed, and can interfere with social interactions and simple activities like reaching for an object on a shelf.

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Although it’s been estimated that 20 percent to 40 percent of people over age 60 have an abnormal curvature of the spine, “the fact of the matter is we really don’t know what causes hyperkyphosis,’’ Samelson says. It’s currently believed that the excess curvature is caused by small fractures in the vertebrae, which often appear in osteoporosis. But not all people who develop a curved spine also have these fractures, and not all people with vertebral fractures develop hyperkyphosis. “We don’t know what other features contribute to developing this over time,’’ she says, but they may include muscle strength in the back, or the health of the spinal discs. But so far, it’s not known how all of these factors work together to cause the spine to bend, or who’s at higher risk of developing the condition. Samelson is part of a team that is embarking on a comprehensive study of hyperkyphosis, which they hope will provide some answers to these questions, as well as suggesting ways to prevent and manage the condition.

Until scientists know more, the best way to lower your risk of developing poor posture with age is to take care of your overall health with particular attention to your spine.

“Strong muscles and bones are going to help overall spine health,’’ Samelson says. Exercises that target muscle strength can help prevent the natural decline in muscle mass as we age and improve bone density. Samelson says it makes sense that maintaining good posture throughout the day helps, but there’s no evidence yet to prove it. Several small studies have found that exercises that promote flexibility in the spine, such as yoga and tai chi, can help prevent or alleviate hyperkyphosis.

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