Most of us are all too familiar with seeing or feeling our body change as we get older: Joints stiffen, hairlines recede, jowls form, and skin wrinkles (bummer!). But over time, other changes occur that are less obvious—literally from our heads down to our toes. As they say, we get wiser with age. Now we know we also get wider, longer, and deeper in certain aspects.
As associated facial bones recede with age, the eye sockets widen, according to a 2008 study. This happens in both men and women—but earlier in women (by middle age) compared with men. Expanding eye sockets make the face look older, since they cause soft, fatty tissues around the eyes to bunch up, which leads to various physical changes, including more visible crow’s feet and excess skin hanging over the eyelids.
This “Dumbo” effect happens in both men and women, according to a 2012 study, attributed to several factors, including age-related reductions in skin elasticity and connective tissue strength. There is also the pulling effect of gravity over time (especially if you wear heavy earrings). The lengthening occurs not just in the ear lobe, which is nothing but soft tissue, but also in the part of the ear that’s made of cartilage. Unfortunately, no matter how big our ears may grow, we still won’t be able to fly like Dumbo.
The nose stops growing by adolescence, but its shape continues to change over time. Ligaments and other connective tissues that hold up the tip of the nose weaken. The maxilla bone (located above the teeth and under the nose tip) recedes, contributing to the droopy look. And flattening of the forehead area above the nose—another change that occurs with age—gives the illusion that the nose has gotten longer.
Starting in middle age, a host of changes occur in the vocal cords and associated structures—for example, muscles of the vocal cords atrophy, nerve fibers that allow their movement degenerate, tissues around them swell and break down, and cartilage of the larynx (voice box) stiffens. These changes interfere with the ability of the vocal cords to vibrate properly, resulting in a weaker or rougher voice, or one that may be lower or higher in register. Estrogen in women delays some of these changes.
The rib cage becomes rounder, and the angle of the ribs relative to the spine becomes more horizontal. Changes in the size and shape of each of the 24 ribs also occur, as was seen in a 2014 study, which examined CT scans of 339 people across the age span (birth to 100 years). These and other structural changes make for a stiffer thorax, which can increase the risk of rib fractures when the ribs are put under pressure (as might occur in a car crash if the chest hits the steering wheel).
From puberty until age 40 or so, the female pelvis is wider than the male pelvis. But the pelvis narrows in middle age in women. The change may be related to estrogen, which rises during puberty and declines beginning at perimenopause, since this hormone affects bone growth—and it may be adaptive since a wider pelvis during reproductive years allows a baby to more easily pass through the birth canal, while a narrower one increases pelvic floor stability.
With age, one of the three arches in the foot (medial longitudinal arch) flattens due to several factors, including a weakening of the tendon that connects a muscle on the back of the shin bone with the foot, resulting in a foot that is wider and maybe a little longer. This structural change alters how the foot absorbs stress when walking or running, and can result in foot pain and overuse injuries. Pregnancy also commonly causes the feet to widen, partly a result of the ligaments associated with this arch becoming laxer due to the pregnancy hormone relaxin, as well as increases in body weight pressing down on the foot.